A six-story industrial building on lands set aside for wildlife, nature appreciation and protection of well fields? Most people would say that's not their idea of a preserve. But changes the county is proposing, wrapped up in a new management plan for the Brooker Creek Preserve, would allow buildings up to 65 feet tall on 260 preserve acres north of Keystone Road. It would allow other well field development activities, such as installing pipes and pumps, over larger swaths of the preserve mostly south of Keystone Road. And preserve water could be pumped to reduce potable water demand, as the county once proposed to water golf courses in East Lake Woodlands.
The county says the use is consistent with its comprehensive plan, a plan that outlines the types of growth that can occur in the unincorporated areas of the county.
But there's another plan, the Countywide Future Land Use Plan, that also outlines what types of uses are appropriate where for the entire county. By law, the plans of local governments and the county's comprehensive plan must be consistent with the uses allowed in the countywide plan.
The county says a utility plant in the preserve is consistent with the countywide plan, too, which labels the entire preserve as "preservation" land.
Some say land use questions are open to interpretation.
But others say a half-dozen or so buildings already built in the preserve, such as a hydrogen sulfide removal facility and a chemical storage building, should not have been built on land designated as preservation, because the use is inconsistent with the Countywide Future Land Use Plan, rules and map.
The countywide plan is unique to Pinellas County.
After a building boom in the 1970s outpaced public services, the county had too much sewage and not enough potable water. So in 1973, the Florida Legislature mandated that the Pinellas Planning Council create a countywide plan to manage growth and control development.
The Countywide Future Land Use Plan was adopted in 1974, and a charter amendment of 1988 requires that the comprehensive plans of individual cities and county government be consistent with the countywide plan.
According to Pinellas County Historical Background, a book the county's planning staff published in 1995, the Brooker Creek Preserve was purchased for $41-million over 10 years "to preserve the Brooker Creek area as a rare example of Pinellas County wilderness."
In the new vision, county officials want to make sure they can build whatever they need to take care of future water needs. And they say that is consistent with their comprehensive plan as well as the preservation category of the countywide plan.
The Pinellas Planning Council advises county commissioners on land use decisions and reviews the comprehensive plans of local governments and the county.
In three letters and e-mails over the past two years, the planning council has told the county that its plan was inconsistent with the countywide plan in regard to the Brooker Creek Preserve.
Dave Healey, planning council executive director, met with the county's planning staff and County Administrator Fred Marquis on Monday and said Marquis agreed that an amendment to the countywide plan would be needed.
When told that the county planning staff, later that afternoon, had said amendments to the countywide plan are not really required, but were being done for clarification, Healey expressed surprise.
"They can say that, but their own actions say differently," he said. "And that's the reason that they have developed and they are pursuing a management plan that is clear as to its needs and objectives."
And that's all the planning council ever wanted, Healey said. "Let's be up front about what is proposed and allowed, and go through the proper process."
Marquis said, "The important thing is not actions that have been taken in the past, that's open to public opinion, but to protect the preserve in the future."
Land use law is not black and white but often gray and open to interpretation, said Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong.
But for environmental activist Mathew Poling of East Lake, 18, elected senior executive of the Friends of Brooker Creek at age 15, the issue is clear.
"It's like a blank check," he said, that the county can cash with whatever it wants in the preserve.
"It's a preserve. It should be left alone," he said. "If some utility project is needed, it should only be if absolutely necessary, and after the public has had a chance to comment."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.