Three landowners are crucial to connecting the Starkey ranch in Pasco County to the Brooker Creek Preserve in Pinellas County.
Efforts to carve out a 35,000-acre wildlife corridor that crosses fast-growing Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties got a boost recently from a local property owner crucial to the deal.
Kay O'Rourke, a low-profile activist with deep roots in the community, has requested details about Hillsborough's land acquisition program. The daughter of Winn-Dixie co-founder Austin Davis owns more than 1,000 acres in northwest Hillsborough that would help link the 8,000-acre J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco to the 8,000-acre Brooker Creek Preserve in Pinellas.
Hillsborough sent O'Rourke a letter in early January asking if she would consider joining the program. The fact O'Rourke did not say no is viewed as positive, said Kurt Gremley, acquisition manager for Hillsborough's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.
Gremley said he spoke with O'Rourke's representative, Clearwater attorney Nathan Hightower, early this month. "He was in a fact-finding mode at the time," Gremley said. "You usually don't do research if you don't have interest."
Supporters say the proposed corridor is a rare opportunity to create a kind of Central Park for the Tampa Bay area. The corridor would form a connected wildlife habitat for native plants and animals, a priority for conservation projects, while creating a unique recreational opportunity.
To connect the parks, the public must buy 4 square miles of land from three owners: about 1,000 acres of the Starkey ranch north of State Road 54, several hundred acres from the developer of the Trinity community south of SR 54, and 1,500 acres, most owned by O'Rourke, in northwest Hillsborough.
The so-called 1,500-acre Brooker Creek Corridor was added to the county's acquisition priority list in November. Gremley said he was taking a decidedly soft-touch approach with O'Rourke. Although her family has been a generous benefactor, he said she likes her privacy. And it is too early to discuss land prices.
"We basically said it depends on what Ms. O'Rourke wants to do," he said.
Project supporters in the three counties have other reasons to be encouraged, said Craig Huegel, environmental lands division administrator for Pinellas. Despite recent discouraging comments from J.B. "Trey" Starkey, the family is willing to talk about providing the desired land, Huegel said. The Starkeys, who have sold 12,000 acres for preservation at below market prices, say the public can expect the price to be higher this time around.
Huegel said officials are feeling out landowners before trying to put the finances together. He did name the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District as realistic partners in any deal.
The corridor could also be appealing as mitigation land. Developers, such as the state Department of Transportation, must buy preservation land to compensate for damage to sensitive areas. That agency could be a potential customer, Huegel said.
"We have looked for a number of years to connect this Brooker Creek area to other preserves," he said. "It only makes sense ... that we go to the Starkey Wilderness Preserve. If we do do it, people 30 years from now are going to say what an amazing amount of foresight."
O'Rourke's interest in the land acquisition program is a positive sign, he said. "I'm glad she's scoping us out because that means she's not writing us off," he said.
Pinellas and Hillsborough officials also remain interested in purchasing hundreds of acres that cross the county line. The tracts are not essential to the proposed wildlife corridor, but they are connected to it and would enlarge the Brooker Creek Preserve.
Loosely defined, the Brooker Creek Corridor runs south from the Pasco line past Lake Frances on the east side, reaching almost as far south as Tarpon Springs Road. Part of the proposed purchase runs southwest along Brooker Creek before connecting with the Brooker Creek Preserve just south of Tarpon Springs Road. O'Rourke owns about 90 percent of it, Gremley said.
Under the county's land acquisition program, landowners can sell the property, sign a conservation easement that allows the county to use the land in environmentally conscious ways, or place it in a life estate that helps preserve it, Gremley said.
O'Rourke, a member of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Library board, could donate it. Her late father gave $1.1-million to build the Austin Davis Public Library in Keystone.
"It's hard to find tracts of that size in one single ownership," Gremley said. "We recognize that we're not in a position to push the issue. It's a voluntary program. If she decides to work with us, that's wonderful."
_ Josh Zimmer covers Keystone and the environment. He can be reached at (813) 226-3474.