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Activists get voice in East Lake plan

During the past month's controversy over Pinellas County's plans for almost 4,000 acres of undeveloped East Lake land, local environmentalists and civic activists have said repeatedly that they want a say in the plans. Now they'll get that opportunity.

County officials are preparing a list of specifications for what they hope to accomplish with the land, known as the Brooker Creek Biological Preserve.

The specifications are what they will send to such organizations as the National Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy, along with a request that those organizations submit a proposal detailing how to carry out those plans.

But before the specifications go out, Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers said Tuesday, the county will ask the local activists to review them and make comments.

Only then will the county send out the specifications, Stowers said.

The promise of finally getting a say in the fate of the East Lake land pleased local activists who had objected to the way county officials were handling the plans.

"This autocratic approach is what's been bothering us," said Mamie Durham of the League of Women Voters. "If you get this public input, you'll get public support."

Another league member, Lisa Lanza, predicted there will be few, if any, objections to the county's specifications.

"We'll probably all like it," Lanza said. "But we want to be a part of it."

Since 1982, the county has been acquiring undeveloped land east of Lake Tarpon a little at a time, primarily to protect its East Lake and Eldridge-Wilde well fields. Commissioners voted Tuesday to buy another two parcels of land in that area, 55 acres for $440,000 and 19.5 acres for $277,000.

In recent months county officials have been trying to determine how best to manage the land, which is home to turkeys, deer, snakes, birds and other wildlife no longer common to the rest of the Pinellas peninsula.

Although it's not open to the public, the land has become popular with poachers, woodcutters, litterbugs and other trespassers.

One of the two parcels of land that commissioners voted to buy Tuesday contains a house that the county will offer to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission as a residence for a wildlife officer who would patrol the land.

If the game commission accepts the offer of the house at the end of Lora Lane, it would mark an important step in protecting the land, County Administrator Fred Marquis wrote in a memo to commissioners.

Last month county officials outlined a proposal to further protect the land by turning it into a biological preserve, bringing in scientists to study it, as well as opening an educational center for the public.

However the proposal, presented by an organization called Biosurvival Trust, ran into opposition from local environmental groups such as the Clearwater Audubon Society and civic groups such as East Lake's Citizens Action League.

They questioned who Biosurvival Trust was, and why the county would allow an unknown group to manage its land.

And some of the claims Biosurvival Trust made in its proposal and its other literature _ that it is a tax exempt organization and has developed an animal therapy program at the Manatee River Youth Ranch _ turned out not to be true.

The objections by the local groups prompted county officials to decide to seek management proposals from a number of other organizations, not just Biosurvival Trust.

That organization still is in the running to manage the land. But Stowers told local environmentalists Monday that Biosurvival Trust "may be a little bit too young" to tackle the job.