Ryan Hurley was stunned when he saw a recent Facebook post with the news that the University of South Florida is thinking about building on a huge swath of largely undeveloped land it owns just north of its Tampa campus.
An environmental policy student at USF, Hurley had recently walked through the property, which has long served as a classroom for science students, a conservation area with endangered ecosystems and site of possible burial grounds and artifacts for indigenous communities.
“There’s a lot of classes where they teach us the importance of these type of ecosystems,” he said. “To see the school teaching me this on one hand, and intentionally developing that property on the other was quite a shock.”
He started a change.org petition last week that asks the university to reconsider. It has since received more than 12,000 signatures.
The news also came as a surprise to those who work most closely with land. David Lewis, a professor of integrative biology, found out when the petition was brought to his attention. He chairs the steering committee that manages use of the land, and said many professors and researchers use it for their work.
The preserve is home to more than 400 plant and animal species, including monarchs, river otters and gopher tortoises. Losing it might impact the university’s ability to recruit faculty and students, Lewis said.
The university put out a formal “request for information” on April 1, seeking firms and other entities interested in submitting proposals for a project with a “potential long-term ground lease or other contractual arrangement to develop the approximate 769 acre parcel, comprised of the USF golf course and undeveloped forest preserve.”
The request allows the university to explore its options, university spokesman Adam Freeman said in an email. At this stage, USF is gauging demand and does not have to accept any proposals, he said.
The school is looking to “obtain information to consider the best strategy for a potential project that could provide greater financial resources to support the university’s mission and benefit our students, faculty and staff,” Freeman said in the email. “For example, funds generated annually from a ground lease on the property could be invested in an endowment that grows over time and provides new resources for USF to fund student scholarships, recruit new faculty members or support research opportunities.”
He said proposals, which the university is asking for by May 21, must consider options for mitigation, protecting wildlife and preserving unique natural features of the property in order to minimize any environmental impacts.
Many do not see the benefit.
“It would be a substantial loss to the university and its ability to foster the teaching and research that lie at the heart of its mission,” said Lewis, the biology professor. “Knowing that a university has taken a rare and endangered habitat and destroyed it instead of a teaching resource may figure into the equation for some people.”
He also said greenhouse gas mitigation that would be engineered artificially to offset the destruction could be costly.
Charles Vickery, a master’s student from USF’s School of Geosciences, expressed similar concerns Thursday to Hillsborough County officials.
About 550 acres of the property are designated as federal wetlands and therefore not eligible for development, he told members of the county commission’s Environmental Protection Committee. Of the remaining portion, Vickery said, about 31 acres are sandhill, an ecosystem greatly shrunk by urbanization in Florida.
“Places like the USF Forest Preserve serve as a critical stronghold for a number of threatened and endangered species that are endemic to these sandhill communities,” he said.
Stephen Hesterberg, a doctoral student in integrative biology involved with the campaign, is asking USF to rescind its request for developers and protect the area. He said he never saw himself as an activist, but he’s concerned about the tributary to the Hillsborough River that runs through the preserve.
“I’m a marine ecologist, but I’m fighting for land conservation,” he said. “What this is is simply short-term decision-making with long-term consequences.”
Hesterberg referred to this month’s crisis at the old Piney Point phosphate plant in Manatee County, where a leak in recent weeks has prompted the release of more than 200 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay, attracting international attention.
“If Piney Point has taught us anything it’s that those short-term decisions have lasting consequences,” Hesterberg said. “There are just some things you can’t get back once they’re gone. Between the native ecosystems, the loss of the natural classroom, nine archaeological sites, you can’t mitigate those things.”
The university’s 10-year campus master plan, which lasts until 2025, states the land will not be developed. Freeman said any proposals would be required to follow that plan as well as city of Tampa codes and ordinances, and the requirements of other agencies, such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
Hurley, the student who started the petition, said he understood the university’s need to seek additional revenue amid tight finances, but thinks developing the land would cause more damage.
“It’s shortsighted to think of this property potentially as a source of income revenue when you’re sacrificing all the benefits of it being there undeveloped,” he said.