The question of what should and should not be allowed within Brooker Creek Preserve was asked in 1998. Until then, nobody knew — the preserve staff, the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve or the citizens of Pinellas County — that Pinellas County Utilities purchased 40 percent (3,623 acres) of the preserve.
We were told at that time that Utilities could do whatever it wanted with its portion of the property. We were shocked. This information surprised not only us, but also the county staff employed as caretakers of the preserve.
It is important to first understand the history prior to 1998. Pinellas County Utilities began buying up property in the East Lake area in the 1980s with revenue from user fees. It was used for potable water production wells until the early 1990s, when saltwater intrusion required the wells to be closed. After that, Utilities viewed the land as valuable for protecting public potable groundwater sources outside the preserve.
Purchasing this land was a good thing, as all of it was slated for further East Lake housing developments. The county followed suit, purchasing contiguous property as green space in the 1990s with money from Penny for Pinellas and state grants. Neither the county nor Utilities wanted the land developed, and all of it was put under the umbrella of "Brooker Creek Preserve."
Biologists were hired to manage the land, the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve was established in 1994 as a watchdog group, truckloads of trash were removed, a huge toxic dump was cleaned and restored, hiking trails were mapped out and built, exotic plants and animals were eradicated, and an environmental education center became a reality.
Then we were told in 1998 that Utilities had some non-preserve plans for its portion of the preserve. "What do you mean, its portion?" we asked. And the trouble started.
The Friends are not screaming, outrageous tree-huggers. We do battle carefully, quietly and deliberately. We research all the facts. We hire legal help. We survey all the options and choose, by committee, the best path. We have won conflicts over potential preserve projects including a private horse facility, pumping water for a private golf course, and the location of ball fields.
When we say we made "a deal with the devil," it is true, but we did not sell our souls. To the contrary, we feel we made the right decisions for the wildlife, the people, the preserve staff, the Pinellas County Commission and Utilities. These decisions were made through years of negotiations.
Utilities knew back in the 1980s when it first began purchasing the property that there would be utilities-type needs over time. Utilities didn't know what those needs were then – it couldn't predict the future – nor does it know future needs now.
Will Utilities ever need a five-story building? A reservoir? Utilities officials don't know. But if they do, they can build it (1) only on their apportioned 260 acres in the extreme northeastern corner of the preserve, (2) only if it is a water-related project and the water is intended for human consumption only, (3) only after an additional layer of public review for any vertical structure, and (4) provided it is located on the site that is least detrimental to the environment.
Until then, the land remains open space for wildlife. And the rest of the preserve, all 8,000-plus acres, will remain intact forever, including those lands that Utilities purchased. The Friends view this as another battle won.
A glass can be viewed as half full or half empty. The Friends firmly believe the Brooker Creek glass is about 97 percent full. We are thankful and appreciative that Pinellas County, including the Utilities Department, rescued this land from its destined, planned urban sprawl.
We are sorely disappointed that Utilities gets to use 260 acres, but it has given up 3,363 acres, a huge win for the environment.
Allyn Childress is chairman of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve Inc., and Cathie Foster and Barbara Hoffman are both vice-chairmen. Guest columnists write their own opinions on subjects they choose, which may or may not reflect the opinions of this newspaper.