For more than 30 years Pinellas County wanted to buy the 871-acre Eldridge-Wilde well field from the family that owned it, but the family wasn't interested. Now, in a victory for the environment, a deal has been struck. Pinellas County will pay the Wilde Family Trust $17.4-million and the property in the northeast corner of the county will become the public's land.
Earlier this year Hillsborough County bought its 1,000-acre portion of the Eldridge-Wilde well field from the Wilde trust for $17.75-million. The two properties, which are side by side and span the Pinellas-Hillsborough line, create a protected corridor for wildlife moving east-west and save from development close to 2,000 acres.
Putting aside so much land is a significant accomplishment, especially in densely populated Pinellas. Whether future residents of the county will look back on the decision to buy the Wilde property as a great achievement will depend on what the county does with it. The announced plan has drawn some criticism because the county wants to use the land rather than just preserve it.
The county's plan is to expand the 8,300-acre Brooker Creek Preserve by adding 771 of the 871 acres of Wilde land to it. But if proposed land use and zoning changes are approved in coming weeks, the 771 acres could be used for construction and maintenance of water-related infrastructure such as wells and water lines. While most of Pinellas' drinking water now comes from outside the county, there are still a few active wells on the property that county officials say must be maintained. And officials want the opportunity to draw more water there if it is ever needed.
On the remaining 100 acres of Wilde land, Pinellas commissioners want to create a recreation complex that would include ballfields, concession stands, restrooms and parking. Youth sports organizations that have a desperate need for fields are celebrating, but the plan has outraged neighbors who argue that the pastoral setting and abundant wildlife there would be disturbed daily by traffic, lights and noise. They contrast Pinellas' rec complex proposal with Hillsborough County's announced plans for its Wilde land: picnic tables and hiking trails.
Officials of both counties should be congratulated for successfully concluding these important land purchases. As the Tampa Bay area grows and land becomes even more scarce, these hundreds of acres can serve as natural refuges for people and wildlife.