TAMPA — There is at least one potential suitor for the development rights to the University of South Florida Forest Preserve — Hillsborough County.
Commissioner Kimberly Overman wants the 769 acres to remain undeveloped and is asking the county to pursue acquisition of the USF Forest Preserve and adjoining golf course through the Jan K. Platt Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program. She is scheduled to make her pitch to the full commission Wednesday.
“The county has had its eye on this piece of property for a long time,” said Overman. “It’s the bridge between Lettuce Lake Park and Cypress Creek. It’s so pristine. It has so much wildlife. It’s an important piece of property when it comes to our community.”
Last week, commissioners, sitting as the Environmental Protection Commission, heard concern about the land’s future after the university issued a formal “request for information” on April 1 seeking development ideas for the site.
About three-quarters of the 769 acres are protected wetlands, and the remaining property includes about 31 acres of sandhill uplands. Losing the sandhill uplands means losing habitat for endangered or protected species, including gopher tortoises, Eastern indigo snakes and nine endangered plant species, said Charles Vickery, a master’s student from USF’s School of Geosciences.
“Developing this area would create a pinch point in an otherwise intact corridor,” Vickery told commissioners.
The university has asked interested parties to submit 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 proposals are due May 21.
The university’s request for information described the land as “one of the largest remaining undeveloped parcels along I-75 and presents many transportation advantages to developers and their clients” and noted the possible 118 acres of developable land along Fletcher Avenue.
The county has a different description. An agenda memo says the land “is of great environmental importance due its urban location, the habitats on site which are considered globally imperiled habitats ... and its critical proximity to Lettuce Lake Park and Cypress Creek Nature Preserve.”
Because the university is the owner and the land’s name includes “forestry preserve” Overman said the public likely perceived the land already was a conservation area.
“I think there was an assumption that it was protected and (the environmental land program) didn’t have to worry about whether it was lost or not. But given the (university’s request for information) it became obvious we needed to pay attention,” she said.
If the full commission agrees, the board will ask its environmental land acquisition committee to “formally nominate this parcel and to rank it in accordance with” existing guidelines. The environmental committee is scheduled to meet April 26. Participation is voluntary so USF would not be required to sell or lease the land to the county if Hillsborough seeks to acquire it.
The county’s environmental land program has preserved more than 63,000 acres since its inception 34 years ago. It is financed by voter-approved bond issues.
Times staff writer Divya Kumar contributed to this report.