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Temple Terrace residents protest proposed bat tower

TEMPLE TERRACE — When the founders of this town laid out streets and established a golf course, they also added a quirky feature: a bat tower designed by the celebrated bat tower designer of the time, Dr. Charles Campbell.

The idea was to attract the winged mammals, which have voracious appetites for insects, to eat up the mosquitoes that brought malaria with them in 1920s. It's unclear whether the tower ever attracted great numbers of bats, but the 40-foot wooden obelisk became a beloved city landmark until an arsonist destroyed it in 1979.

A group of preservationists worked for 10 years to rebuild it, and the City Council approved a spot for it at Riverhills Park, near the boat ramp, with an intended completion date of October.

Trouble is, the tower has creeped out the residents of the upper middle class neighborhood across from the park. The tower is expected to draw 100,000 to 200,000 bats, but it has the capacity to hold 600,000.

A few dozen residents appeared before the council this week to protest the placement of the tower. They expressed worry that their children and grandchildren could be bitten after picking up a rabid bat from the ground. They feared that some of the night creatures might roost in their homes. They didn't want to smell the musty odor of the tower's likely main occupant, the Brazilian free-tail bat, along with its droppings; and they didn't want it to block the view of the river.

Sandy Burke, a nurse who said her master's degree was in public health, told the council she supported the bat tower, donated money for it, but she didn't realize it was "going next to a children's playground.'' It's located next door to Riverhills Elementary.

"Yes, those diseases are very rare, but they happen. But rabies makes the (bats) fall. Every kid in the world is going to pick up a bat that's lying on the ground.''

Kathy Langdon said the tower will increase traffic in the neighborhood and decrease property values.

While saying she does not live near the park, "I feel empathy for people that will have to live with a 40-foot bat house either beside them or across the street from them . . . I would guess that the number of people who support the bat tower don't live near it.''

Scott Hines, who lives across the street from the proposed tower and is a key organizer of the protest, said, "Why would the city want to put any citizen in this position?''

After the onslaught of protest, the council voted to reconsider sites that proponents and their scientific advisers had rejected, explore other sites that citizens recommended, and report on the pros and cons of each one at the July 16 meeting.

City Council member Grant Rimbey, elected last November, was one of the early backers of rebuilding the tower. Having grown up in Temple Terrace, he has fond memories of the original — he was 12 years old when it was destroyed. In a previous interview, he talked about the spooky aura of the old tower, which was along the river, just north of Bullard Parkway. "We would dare each other to walk down there and touch it and run back.''

A couple of the protesting residents said Rimbey should refrain from voting on the matter because of his early support for it. Rimbey pointed out that because he is not gaining financially from its construction, he has no obligation to recuse himself.

He also appealed to the council not to "kick this can down the road.'' Saying he is familiar with all the sites so far considered, he expects that the Riverhills Park site will end up being the choice anyway.

"And then we will have to do what we've been elected to do, which is make tough decisions," Rimbey said.

Tim Lancaster, president of the Temple Terrace Preservation Society and another longtime leader in the bat tower campaign, said the two bat towers at the University of Florida, which together house about 300,000 bats, are popular spots, drawing up to two dozen visitors on weeknights and 30 to 40 on weekend nights. They're there for the moment, at dusk, when the bats all fly out at once.

He brought with him Cynthia Marks with the Florida Bat Conservancy, who said the risk of contracting rabies or another feared infection, the histoplasmosis fungus, is very low. She said only two people a year die from bat rabies in the United States, and there are no recorded human deaths from rabid bats in Florida history. Bats are everywhere, she pointed out; hundreds of Floridians have backyard bat houses.

She pointed out that bats also help fight mosquito-borne diseases, such as the West Nile virus, though protesters cited research that mosquitoes are a very small part of the bat's diet.

Several council members said they enjoy seeing bats take flight en masse at dusk. Members Robert Boss and Eddie Vance said they thought worries about disease from bats was overblown.

But Hines, who lives about 100 feet from the proposed bat tower, said, "The chances of us having issues are so much higher.''

With all the other worries, he's concerned that his property value will drop. He imagines a potential home buyer asking what that thing is across the street, and finding out it's a bat tower.

"Do you think that may make you question whether you want to buy that house?"

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Temple Terrace residents protest proposed bat tower 06/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 3:39pm]

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