A teenager's lawsuit may finally reveal how Pinellas County government managed to construct buildings in the Brooker Creek Preserve, where land regulations state that nothing may be built.
Pinellas County has almost a million residents, but only one, 18-year-old Mathew Poling, cared enough to use every tool at his disposal to try to figure that out and ensure that the 8,000-acre Brooker Creek Preserve in northeast Pinellas is protected from development.
Along the way, Poling says he learned a lot about roadblocks citizens encounter when they try to fight the government on land issues.
Last week, Poling was fighting the flu and cramming for final exams at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he is a freshman. But to him, the most important thing he had to do all week was get to the Pinellas County Courthouse and file his case against the county.
Poling wrote the lawsuit, motions and subpoenas himself after failing to find an attorney who would challenge Pinellas or do so at a price he could afford. Poling said he learned how to write those legal documents by "doing a lot of research in the law library," and he is paying the costs out of his college money. When the case goes before a judge, Poling will have to represent himself in the courtroom. He will be opposed by the well-staffed and well-funded Pinellas County Attorney's Office.
Soft-spoken Poling, who is nothing if not focused and methodical, says he is "kind of nervous about the whole thing, but I just have to get ready for it."
He has been working to preserve the Preserve for three years, first as a 15-year-old officer in the otherwise all-adult Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, and now on his own. Others have given up on the difficult research required to figure out what the county is doing in the publicly owned preserve, or they have decided to compromise with county officials who say some kinds of development are appropriate in the preserve.
Poling knows the preserve well, having grown up in a home that borders it. He and his father, Steve, led tours of the preserve and have been outspoken advocates for it.
Poling got upset when the county wanted to build things in the preserve like ballfields and horse stables and water treatment plants. He was appalled when the county flattened 40 acres for a planned water blending plant. He fired off e-mails to county officials, asked detailed but respectful questions at public hearings, read documents and studied maps.
And he discovered something curious. The county had done a lot of building in the preserve: two office buildings, two water treatment facilities, an education center, a pole barn, roads and parking lots. The county had done all that even though Brooker Creek Preserve lands are designated as preservation in the countywide land use plan, a plan created under state law, and none of those activities are allowed in the preservation category.
Poling was convinced the county was illegally developing the preserve, but he was stunned to discover that land development law gave him no route to challenge the county unless he was a landowner directly affected by the county's projects.
His desperation grew when the county began work in recent months to amend the countywide land use rules in ways that would make those structures legal and allow further construction of things like water lines, wells, water storage tanks and even a reservoir on parts of the preserve. Public hearings on those amendments are set for Jan. 6 and Jan. 20.
Back at the law library, Poling searched for some way to stop it. He decided that the county's construction in the preserve met the state's legal definition of a public nuisance — "any place where any law of the state is violated" — and as a citizen, he believed he could sue on behalf of the state to stop and abate a public nuisance.
So he did. Last week he also filed a motion for a temporary injunction to prevent the county from using the facilities in the preserve or from amending the countywide land use rules before his lawsuit goes to court. A judge will hear that motion Jan. 7.
The county has admitted no wrongdoing and is expected to mount a well-prepared and professional defense — that is, if Poling's lawsuit isn't thrown out on some technicality that he didn't unearth in the UF law library.
Poling's solitary fight strikes me as a little sad, since there should be an army of environmental types lined up behind him to keep things like five-story structures and reservoirs out of Brooker Creek Preserve. But perhaps it is no surprise that it took the energy and idealism of a young person to get this far in such a one-sided fight.
And it should be no surprise to anyone that Poling's goal in life, after all this, is to become an attorney specializing in land use law.
Diane Steinle can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.