CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners moved closer Tuesday to giving voters the authority to kill any future sales of the county's environmental lands.
The commission voted to hold a public hearing Aug. 5 on a proposed charter amendment that would be on the ballot in November.
If approved by voters, it would require a referendum any time county officials wanted to sell, convey or transfer more than 1 acre of the county's environmental lands.
At that Aug. 5 hearing, commissioners could decide whether to go forward with the amendment.
"Hopefully, this will pass and this conversation can be put to rest once and for all," Commissioner Susan Latvala said.
Latvala first proposed an ordinance to protect park and environmental lands after an uproar from environmentalists about projects the county had proposed in the Brooker Creek Preserve. But last year the commission scrapped the ordinance in favor of a charter amendment.
If the amendment is passed as now written, county commissioners would have to ask the voters for approval before disposing of more than an acre of any environmental land the county owns in the Brooker Creek, Mobbly Bayou, Shell Key and Weedon Island preserves and in 15 other management areas throughout the county.
But the Friends of Brooker Creek, a nonprofit group organized to advocate for and support the Brooker Creek Preserve, say the charter amendment doesn't go far enough.
The reason: Voter approval would not be needed before leasing preserve lands, as commissioners did when they leased 38.5 preserve acres on Old Keystone Road to the East Lake Youth Sports Association for youth sports fields.
Will Davis, the county's director of environmental management, confirmed the Friends' take on the charter amendment in a discussion with Tom Reese, a St. Petersburg attorney, and Barbara Hoffman, a member of Pinellas County's advisory Environmental Science Forum and vice chairwoman of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve.
"It stops the sale of the land — period," Davis said of the charter amendment.
Hoffman said the Friends want to see a vote required for leasing, donating or licensing environmental lands as well as selling them.
And she said the vote should be required for any interest to be transferred, not just the transfer of "fee simple" interest — in essence, the transfer of all property rights — as the amendment now reads.
The ordinance abandoned a year ago contained six exceptions that would have allowed commissioners to take big steps affecting parks and environmental lands without getting voter approval first. Commissioner Calvin Harris and residents objected to the loopholes.
Opponents of the ordinance hoped the charter amendment would include language preventing commissioners from unilaterally approving projects — like an equestrian center and the ballfields — once proposed in the Brooker Creek Preserve.
Last year, environmental activist Lorraine Margeson of St. Petersburg gave commissioners a proposed charter amendment based on the provision in St. Petersburg's charter that gives city voters there similar authority over the downtown waterfront.
The charter amendment now under consideration is not the one she proposed, she said, but it's much better than the county's discarded ordinance.
Charter amendments put voters in the driver's seat, she said.
"With the stadium, if we had not had the charter amendment protection, we'd probably already be building a baseball stadium," she said.
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.