Hillsborough County's recent decision to preserve nearly 1,700 acres of undeveloped land in the northwestern corner of the county will be a gift for Tampa Bay residents for generations to come. The $20 million purchase abuts 9,700 acres of undeveloped land already held by either Hillsborough or Pinellas counties, thus creating a swath of protected land in an area where 2 million people jockey for elbow room. Hillsborough is to be commended for maintaining a long-term vision, even during these tough economic times.
Hillsborough commissioners unanimously agreed Dec. 2 to purchase the land, traditionally used for cattle, from Kay D. O'Rourke. To the west is the 1,000-acre former Wilde family property that the county bought last year for more than $17 million. Adjoining that property, Pinellas maintains 8,700 acres as the Brooker Creek Preserve.
The assembled swath in northwest Hillsborough and northeast Pinellas will serve several goals:
• Wildlife, including deer, coyotes and wild turkey, will have a preserved corridor for traveling east and west. If Pasco County eventually makes key purchases, the corridor could grow northward, connecting to the Starkey Wilderness Park's 8,000 acres.
• The public, for years to come, will have access to recreation and the natural environment in a major metropolitan area.
• Putting the 11,000 acres beyond the reach of developers helps to protect water quality.
While Pinellas County purchased the lands that make up the Brooker Creek Preserve over the course of many years, Hillsborough's purchases have occurred in the last two years under the county's popular Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. Last year, despite the recession, Hillsborough voters agreed to allow the county to continue levying a small tax on residents for environmental preservation.
Officials have acknowledged the challenge created by adding more land to their inventory when the county budget is already under strain. Staff will have to stretch to oversee the growing inventory. And the Southwest Florida Water Management District will be asked to share in the cost of the O'Rourke property — an appropriate request, given the land's value to the watershed. The county also plans to offset some of the costs by leasing the tract to a rancher for three to five years while it develops a management plan.
Hillsborough residents should watch closely as that plan is developed — a lesson to be learned from Pinellas, where county commissioners have approved use of some of the Brooker Creek Preserve for water treatment plants, ball fields and water pipelines. Preservation land is not park land, and its value to wildlife and the watershed is diminished by anything but the most passive recreational uses. The property assembled by Hillsborough and Pinellas is a treasure that the public may have to work hard to protect as development pressures grow in the years ahead. But what a gift.