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Much of USF Forest Preserve not suited for development, consultant says

A university committee will make recommendations on the land’s future within 45 days.
A cypress creek flows over a sandy stream bed in the heart of the USF Forest Preserve. The future of the property has been in question since April, when plans surfaced to explore development options for the site.
A cypress creek flows over a sandy stream bed in the heart of the USF Forest Preserve. The future of the property has been in question since April, when plans surfaced to explore development options for the site. [ Courtesy of Christian Brown ]
Published Oct. 27
Updated Oct. 27

Large portions of the University of South Florida’s 769-acre Forest Preserve are not suitable for development, a consultant for the school has concluded.

Those findings, made public on Tuesday, came as a relief to opponents of a controversial proposal to seek other uses for the sprawling property just north of the USF Tampa campus. The university also announced the formation of an advisory committee to help decide the future of the land.

The assessment, conducted by Timothy Neldner of Heidt Design, divided the preserve into four segments. It said the portion occupied by the USF golf course “could likely be properly entitled and permitted for residential, commercial and/or mixed-use development,” but that other parts of the preserve would present problems for potential developers.

A large portion of the preserve dubbed “Area 2″ might best be used as conservation land, possibly through a program like Hillsborough County’s, or could serve as a wetland mitigation bank, Neldner’s report said. The area extends from the eastern border of the golf course to Riverfront Park.

A consultant's map divides the USF Forest Preserve into four segments, including the university golf course, seen at left in Area 1. [Courtesy of Heidt Design]
A consultant's map divides the USF Forest Preserve into four segments, including the university golf course, seen at left in Area 1. [Courtesy of Heidt Design]

“The time and expenditures for pursuing authorizations from the regulatory agencies plus the cost of construction make the area unfeasible for improvements beyond minimally intrusive activities, such as elevated boardwalks and observation platforms,” the report stated.

The remaining two segments, Neldner wrote, are upland areas which “could likely be developed in a manner that is consistent with surrounding uses after appropriate entitlements are acquired and required permits are obtained.”

He wrote that the gopher tortoises native to the area would need to be removed first, and that “these areas could also leverage their existing ecological conditions and proximal location for use as potential educational/research and conservation/mitigation banking opportunities.”

Tensions over the preserve’s future surfaced in April after an undergraduate student stumbled upon the university’s request to solicit interest from developers in the tract, which serves as an outdoor classroom and includes federally protected wetlands, indigenous burial sites and endangered species. The student created a petition, catching many of those who work most closely with the land off guard — including faculty and members of a steering committee that oversees the land.

Related: USF students, faculty balk at idea to develop untouched land near campus

The university’s request drew responses from developers who put forth ideas for restaurants, apartments, hotels, research hubs and a football stadium. Hillsborough County officials, meanwhile, called for the permanent preservation of the land and released their own assessment of the property earlier this month.

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Related: Ideas spill in for USF’s Forest Preserve: stadium, hotels, tech hub and more

In response to backlash from faculty, students and community activists, former USF president Steve Currall announced that an advisory committee would determine how best to proceed. But after Currall later stepped down, interim president Rhea Law paused the process and said a consultant would be hired to look at the site first.

This week, with the consultant’s work done, the university announced it was time to launch the advisory committee.

Interim USF president Rhea Law
Interim USF president Rhea Law [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

In an email inviting people to serve on the panel, Law, a former environmental and land use attorney, stated that any recommendations the university will consider must “consider options for mitigation, protecting wildlife and preserving unique natural features of the property to eliminate or minimize any environmental impacts.”

She also stated any part of the property that is “culturally significant for their connection to indigenous peoples” would be “protected and respected.”

The committee’s chairperson will be Tom Frazer, dean of the College of Marine Science.

USF College of Marine Science dean Tom Frazer [Courtesy of USF]
USF College of Marine Science dean Tom Frazer [Courtesy of USF]

The other members are Hilary Black, senior associate general counsel for USF; Julia Cunningham, student body president; Eric Eisenberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; Kebreab Ghebremichael, director of water sustainability at the USF Water Institute; Jody Harwood, a College of Arts and Sciences professor; Shawn Landry, director of the USF Water Institute; David Lewis, chairperson of the Forest Preserve Steering Committee; Jeannie Mounger, a doctoral candidate in the department of integrative biology; Amy Pham, an undergraduate student in biomedical sciences; Luanna Prevost, a College of Arts and Sciences professor; Mark Rains, the state’s chief science officer and a College of Arts and Sciences professor; and Rich Sobieray, interim senior vice president for financial strategy.

Law said the committee will review Neldner’s assessment and other related information and provide recommendations for the future of the preserve, including any action steps.

Mounger, who was among those who led protests against development efforts, said she was encouraged by the committee’s composition. The members “share the same ethos and goal,” she said.

She also praised Law’s approach of soliciting input from students and said she hopes the next president and leadership team embrace that. The topic of the forest preserve came up in the recent listening sessions that are part of the search for USF’s next president.

The land “has been so important for so many students,” Mounger said. “I think that’s a legacy that the university should want to preserve.”

The committee’s meetings will be open to the public, and Law has asked for recommendations within 45 days.