Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough idea to name land program for Jan Platt draws qualms

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners will consider renaming their popular land preservation program Wednesday after the woman who conceived it, one of their former colleagues, Jan Platt.

But the proposal is running into some surprising opposition — from some of Platt's fellow environmental advocates who have mounted a social media campaign to block it.

Opponents say the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program belongs to the people. It should not be politicized by attaching one person's name to it.

"ELAPP's strength has always been that it's beyond politics," said Mariella Smith, who serves on a citizen's committee that recommends land to purchase, in an email to commissioners. "ELAPP enjoys broad-based, non-partisan support which could be damaged by naming it after any single politician."

Smith and others also object to the lack of public vetting of the idea. They have suggested that Platt, a Democrat, would have objected to such little scrutiny were she still an elected official.

"I can only hope she will recognize this is being done in entirely the wrong fashion and would decline to allow this to happen," said Ged Caddick, a member of the ELAPP advisory panel.

The proposal came up Sept. 18 when Platt and some of ELAPP's early supporters showed up for a County Commission meeting to be recognized on its 25th anniversary. It was then that Democratic Commissioner Kevin Beckner suggested that the program to be renamed, or rather that Platt's name be appended to it.

He said this week that it was a spontaneous proposal.

"I was listening to the proclamation and the commendation about Jan," Beckner said. "It just seemed to fit."

Other commissioners quickly chimed in that it was a great idea, and the proposal won unanimous approval to send to staff for a vetting before returning to the board for a formal vote. Platt, 77, who gets around with the aid of a walker, choked up.

She has more commendations and plaques than wall space in her home to hang them on after years of service on the commission and the Tampa City Council. A South Tampa library bears her name. This is special, she said.

"I'm a native of the state of Florida," she said this week. "ELAPP has helped save some of what's important about Florida, so the program means a great deal to me personally."

She said it's up to the commission to decide what's right.

Platt was in the first of two tours on the County Commission as the state was seeking to acquire land on upper Tampa Bay for preservation. The county was unable to assist with the purchase at the time because it didn't have money available.

So Platt suggested that the county create its own preservation program, and a committee was formed to come up with ideas. She argued that it was the only way to ensure some of natural Florida was kept intact, in the interest of protecting its water, air and wildlife.

A proposal to tax property owners a quarter of a penny for every $1,000 of taxable value was put to voters 1987. It passed by a 3-to-1 ratio, almost unheard of in ballot questions involving tax hikes.

"I call her the mother of ELAPP," said Sally Thompson, another of the program's advisory board members. "I'm just surprised that anyone would really even question this. I'm stunned."

In 25 years, voters have extended ELAPP twice, most recently in 2008 with nearly 80 percent approval. Through the program, the county has preserved more than 61,000 acres at a cost of about $254 million, about a third of which came from other sources such as the state.

Jan Smith, co-chairwoman with Thompson of the ELAPP general committee, the citizen's panel, said she mentioned the commission's proposal at the Sept. 23 meeting of that board. She said it was greeted with nothing but enthusiasm.

Mariella Smith and Caddick were traveling out of the country.

Jan Smith said it will be years before the county has to seek voter approval of another ELAPP extension. By then, Platt's time in local politics will be long past, so Smith doesn't think her politics jeopardizes anything.

"Voters will know from the name of this program that this is a woman who cared about the future of this community and left a legacy behind," she said.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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