EAST LAKE — Pinellas County officials, environmentalists and others have spent more than two years debating individual proposals in the Brooker Creek Preserve — a ballfield here, an irrigation well there — on a piecemeal basis.
But on Tuesday night, virtually all the stakeholders in those discussions finally sat down together to look at the Big Picture.
The occasion was a public hearing called to consider a county management plan for the 8,000-acre preserve. During a three-hour discussion, the 40 people who turned out found plenty to question and protest.
"I've heard so many citizens say, 'Leave the preserve
alone!' " said Liz Drayer, a member of Clearwater Audubon Society. "I don't know why this keeps happening."
If approved by the County Commission later this summer, the plan would create some do-not-touch areas within the preserve, but it also would allow Pinellas County's utilities department to use other areas for uses such as wellfields and pumping facilities.
For example, proposed land use changes would allow pumping the preserve to water golf courses, a controversial idea already shot down once in the face of public opposition.
And it would let utilities officials choose 200 acres within a 900-acre area north of Keystone Road for buildings and structures up to 60 feet tall.
At the meeting, utilities officials agreed not to put anything tall in the eastern part of the preserve north of Keystone Road, which includes prized sandhill habitat.
Still, activists and others raised a raft of points and challenges:
• The county made a covenant with its residents when the preserve was created in the early 1990s, they said. It was called a preserve, not a future wellfield or land bank.
• Leave the preserve map as it is, with no areas earmarked for utilities uses, they urged. And wait until utilities need the land. When the need arises, talk with the public then.
• Stick with a plan, they urged, to allow Oldsmar to connect its network of city trails into the southern end of the preserve. "This was a vision 10 years ago when I came to Oldsmar," said Lynn Rives, Oldsmar leisure services director. It can, he said, be a tool for environmental education.
• Make sure the plan keeps the public's voice in decisions affecting the preserve, said speakers, some of whom plainly said they do not trust state or county officials to protect it. Pass an amendment, they urged, to the county charter requiring public approval for future changes.
"Remember, this land belongs to everybody in the county," said Dave Kandz, conservation committee chair for St. Petersburg Audubon. "And everybody should have an opportunity to comment."
Rich McLean, the county's assistant director of utilities for water programs, said the utilities department doesn't know what his department will need in the preserve in the future.
"We are asking you to give us some flexibility up there," he said. "If we do build something … we will talk to you. We will have to get permits."
From an engineering point of view, he said it would make sense to keep the acreage the county builds on as close together as possible. And the utilities department would build on uplands, not wetlands.
Why not leave the map as it is, some asked, and consider utilities uses as they arise?
"We want this settled now," county director of environmental management Will Davis said. "I know the commission does."
An audience member challenged Davis's commitment to protecting the preserve.
"You do not seem to represent what you say you represent," said Aydelette Kelsey. "I never see you fighting."
Davis challenged that, saying he helped former assistant county administrator Jake Stowers put the preserve together and he has spent thousands of hours fighting for the preserve.
"Will, we want this settled, too," said Alexa Wilcox, a former president of the Florida Native Plant Society. "Unfortunately, we don't want it settled the way it is now."
She, like others there, does not trust county government.
"I've seen them turn their backs on us time and time again," she said. "So why should we trust them now?"
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.