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Teen environmentalist confronts Pinellas County in court

Mathew Poling of East Lake, 18, prepares to stand before Judge Linda R. Allan on Wednesday in Circuit Court in Clearwater. Poling worked solo against county attorneys Jewel White Cole and Dennis Long.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Mathew Poling of East Lake, 18, prepares to stand before Judge Linda R. Allan on Wednesday in Circuit Court in Clearwater. Poling worked solo against county attorneys Jewel White Cole and Dennis Long.

CLEARWATER — Mathew Poling sat quietly outside the door to Courtroom C of the Pinellas County Courthouse, surrounded by his family.

"I'm more nervous than he is," said Carole Poling, just before her son went in to plead his case. "It's finally here. Hopefully, we'll have a good result."

But the first skirmish over Brooker Creek Preserve between the young environmentalist and Pinellas County in the 6th Judicial Circuit Court on Wednesday ended without resolution.

Poling, 18, a freshman at the University of Florida from East Lake, was seeking a temporary injunction to keep the county from changing its land use plan while his lawsuit moves forward.

But by the time both sides gave an overview of their positions and discussed the county's motion to dismiss the suit, the 50 minutes allotted before Circuit Judge Linda R. Allan had expired.

So the judge said she would take it all under advisement, and schedule two hours to hear testimony as soon as schedules allow, if the case goes forward.

The hearing began shortly after 10 a.m.

At one table, Poling sat alone, with a small group of mostly family in the seats behind him.

At the other table sat county attorneys Jewel White Cole and Dennis Long and Will Davis, the county's director of environmental management. Behind them sat a phalanx of county employees, including at least two additional attorneys.

The county had filed a motion to dismiss the case late Monday and brought another eight-page memorandum with arguments for dismissal to the hearing.

Poling had little time to prepare a response to the county's motion to dismiss and no time to even read the county's latest arguments. But he agreed to discuss the county's motion to dismiss when the judge asked if he could.

The suit says the Brooker Creek Preserve's environmental education center, two office buildings, two water treatment facilities, a 46-acre site cleared for a water treatment plant and a pole barn are "public nuisances" because they were developed without regard to the countywide land use plan.

The judge was not willing to hear testimony from witnesses Poling had planned to call because the owners and operators of two of the buildings in dispute were not there. There wasn't time, in any case.

She thanked Poling and Cole for their professional presentations.

The county contends that as a judicial body, the court does not have the authority to suspend a legislative process, to tell county commissioners that they can't make changes to the countywide land use plan. The county also says the buildings that Poling's injunction would shut down are all essential to the public, even the environmental education center.

"There's a lot of things up there that are essential: restrooms for people using their hiking and horseback trails," Cole said after the hearing, referring also to parking for limited recreational use and environmental education.

Poling said his suit does not seek to shut down buildings that provide essential public services, like the water plants already built. But it does seek to stop the county from building more water plants or reservoirs on land labeled "preservation" in the countywide plan, which is mandated by a special act of the Florida Legislature.

The county has already allowed five buildings to be built in the preserve in violation of that law, he said, and land use changes the county is pursuing would open 260 acres of the preserve for industrial utility buildings.

The big question is whether Poling's suit, if it goes forward, will be resolved in time to stop the plan changes the county wants.

"I wish the county would just follow the law," Poling said after the hearing. "Then we wouldn't be in this situation."

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Teen environmentalist confronts Pinellas County in court 01/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 4:45pm]
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