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County buys land to add to preserve

There's more to the 190 acres that the Pinellas County Commission decided to buy for $5.3-million this week than its four lakes and abundant pine trees.

The land also will connect the Brooker Creek Preserve to 160 acres the county owns in the Anclote River basin dubbed the Lost Management Area. One day, the new county property on the east side of East Lake Road may become a trailhead where residents can park and embark on hikes east toward the Anclote River or west into the heart of the preserve.

"We are very pleased," said Ken Rowe, chairman of the Friends of the Brooker Creek Preserve. "It's an important parcel. It's the stepping stone from the preserve to the Lost Management Area. We have been working in that direction for some time. This is terrific."

Until the county approached the property owners several years ago, it was well on its way to becoming a cemetery.

The unusual method of purchase will have the county buying all the stock of East Lake Memorial Gardens, which is mostly owned by John Mills of Tarpon Springs. The commission will then deed the land to the county and then dissolve the company.

While certainly unorthodox, said county real estate manager Ellyn Kadel said, the method of purchase may actually have made it less expensive because there are some tax benefits to Mills.

As part of the agreement, Mills and his wife, Bonnie, will donate another 10 acres at the end of Ranch Road to the county to be added to the preserve. The property, now surrounded by the preserve, was purchased by Mills in 1986. Mills, who operates the property as a tree farm, estimates the land's value at $800,000.

The 190-acre property _ bounded on the west by East Lake Road, to the south by Trinity Boulevard and to the north by the Pasco County line _ is crucial to the county's long-range plan for the Brooker Creek Preserve, said Craig Huegel, Pinellas environmental lands division administrator.

The county has been buying up land in the Anclote River basin with an eye toward creating a connection to the Anclote River. Ultimately, Huegel said, the county hopes to connect the Brooker Creek Preserve to Pasco's Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park.

The Mills property was the only possible link between the preserve and the property to the west that some county officials have taken to calling the Lost Management Area due to its isolation.

"I personally feel very fortunate we were able to come to terms with him," Huegel said. "It's a pretty amazing public recreation possibility, especially considering how densely populated we are in the county."

Huegel said the plan is to develop a system of hiking trails once the environmental education center on the preserve is completed.

The Mills property also has wildlife value due to its four lakes. The lakes, which comprise 65 acres, were created by Mills when he had intended to develop the property residentially. There are no other lakes in the preserve.

The lakes, together with the abundant pines, mean there's a "possibility of bald eagle nesting" in the area, Huegel said.

Originally part of the Bryant Farm, Mills, 49, bought the property in 1990 from U.S. Home Corp. Mills said he initially intended to develop the property as residential, but in 1995, he formed a corporation that sought to develop the property as a cemetery.

The company obtained permits and zoning approval and was on the brink of developing it as a cemetery when county officials came forward two years ago and offered to buy it.

"It is just a gorgeous piece of property that certainly deserves to be a part of the preserve," Mills said.