CLEARWATER — It is an oasis of quiet wilderness, hidden alongside a busy highway in the middle of Florida's most densely populated county.
Moccasin Lake Nature Park, located on the eastern side of U.S. 19 across from Bright House Field, is a heavily forested place surrounded on all sides by dense development. A mile of shell trails and boardwalks winds through its 51 acres.
Now there's talk of asking Clearwater voters to change the city charter to protect the park from development forever.
The only other place in Clearwater that's specifically protected by the city charter is the area below the bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor, including Coachman Park. A referendum is required before any structures, public or private, can be built there.
City voters traditionally have been sticklers for keeping the bluff free of development. They narrowly approved the construction of 126 downtown boat slips in a contentious 2007 referendum, but they previously shot down plans for a parking garage and various recreational facilities.
Moccasin Lake Nature Park, meanwhile, has existed quietly on the other side of the city since the early 1980s.
Clearwater's Environmental Advisory Board, which advises the City Council on ecological matters, recently voted unanimously to ask the council to put a Moccasin Lake referendum on the ballot in the 2014 general election. The proposed change to the charter would preserve the park in perpetuity.
"I have visited the park many times. I felt the way to preserve it in perpetuity would be to do it through the charter, because zoning is something that can easily be amended," said Clearwater attorney Liz Drayer, a member of the five-person advisory board. "The bluff is protected as open space. That's where I got the idea."
The board's vote was sparked by the fact that the city has asked a group of "stakeholders" — groups that meet at Moccasin Lake Park — to provide their input for a master plan for the park.
Board members expressed concern that a piece of the wilderness park could be converted to a ballfield or some other recreational use someday, although city officials say that isn't currently being considered.
The City Council has yet to take up the idea of a referendum. City staffers are studying whether city charter protection could affect future maintenance or improvements to the public buildings and boardwalks that are already at the park. Moccasin Lake has a nature center with exhibits showcasing live fish, snakes and reptiles. One wire enclosure houses a friendly vulture named Elvis who likes visitors.
"We would have to research how designating it as a preservation area would affect the hiking trails or the programming in the park," said Clearwater spokeswoman Joelle Castelli. "We're not sure. This is at a very early stage."
In fact, the Environmental Advisory Board is going to take another look at it.
"No one wants a ball park, but we want to hear all the facts," said the advisory board's chairman, Peter Stasis. "There's more study to be done."
After the advisory board's vote, Drayer and City Council member Jay Polglaze discussed the city charter idea in an exchange of emails.
Although Polgaze said he supports protecting lakes and green space, he fears unintended consequences if the park is protected by the charter. "We have structures on that site which at some time will need either renovations or replacement," he said. "This will be a referendum situation."
Drayer responded that city charter protection would be more ironclad than relying on zoning to protect the park.
"The purpose of a charter amendment would be to protect one of the few remaining natural areas left in the city," she said. "With respect to the buildings on the site, those could be excluded from the charter-protected area quite easily."
For the time being, the park will remain a wild place, alive with alligators, foxes, snakes, armadillos, raccoons and river otters.
Some people may be surprised to learn that the park's lake is man-made. Decades ago, when U.S. 19 was being constructed, engineers borrowed dirt from this spot to build an embankment for an overpass. That left a large pit. The pit filled with rainwater. And that became Moccasin Lake.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.