Lela Lilyquist thinks this story should be an obituary.
It would be about the death of what she calls the final oak tree canopy and sizable green space in the sprawling suburb of Brandon.
The mourners would be the community’s 115,000 residents, who won’t get the chance for an outdoor respite, or to pause on a bench beneath the grand oaks, or to throw down a blanket and watch the Fourth of July parade from the comfort of a heavily shaded park.
Lilyquist, 62, is a longtime civic activist, health-food store owner and operator of Portamento of Hope Inc., her food pantry. She also is the leading objector to Hillsborough County’s plan to build a new library at West Lumsden Road and South Parsons Avenue, a tree-filled 17-acre site sitting amid the bustle of Brandon.
So why exactly would someone — who has spent decades advocating for a community — oppose a library, considered nearly universally as a highly desirable, quality-of-life amenity?
“It’s a beautiful piece of property. It is so discouraging to think they would put anything here. It needs to stay the same way,” Lilyquist said.
The land is a much-needed walkable green space for Brandon, she said, “where we have wall-to-wall housing, buildings all around and traffic that is ridiculous.”
Besides, she said, “we don’t need a new library. We already have one.”
Just one stoplight to the north on South Parsons Avenue sits the current Brandon Library, shoehorned onto Vonderberg Drive in a space shared with the nonprofit Center Place Arts. The library building is 33 years old and, according to the county, has too little parking and cannot accommodate all the library services requested by customers, including meeting rooms, technology instruction and additional programs.
The county plans to replace it with a $12.5 million, 25,000-square-foot library with 175 paved parking spaces, more amenities and room for future expansion. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2025. The county also is making plans to put a senior center and Head Start facility on the same property, close to the new library building.
“The oak trees will be destroyed,” said Lilyquist. “This is wrong.”
Not everyone shares her thinking. An online county survey in January 2021 showed overwhelming support for the library. Of the 111 respondents, 64% favored a new library, with 26% opposed and 10% offering no opinion.
“The library provides so much more than books and media. For some of those that are less fortunate, it’s the only place to access reliable internet for public services. It’s also one of the last remaining places where you can exist without the expectation of buying anything,” one person wrote on the virtual survey.
“Sign of a healthy community when government is responding in a concrete way to real needs,” said another.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Others said they supported the project, but worried about the heavy traffic on West Lumsden Road.
Lilyquist said she believed the sample size was too small to accurately measure the community’s apprehension. One respondent’s comment echoed Lilyquist’s sentiments.
“We have to keep some trees! We are cutting down all the nature in Brandon, building to accommodate everyone. Our grandchildren won’t ever know the beauty and charm of old Brandon because it’s all been bushwhacked.”
Austin Zane, 31, joined Lilyquist in speaking out against the new library. Saving the land for a sandhill crane habitat or for other environmental purposes should be the priority, he said. He and Lilyquist recently asked the Hillsborough County Commission to reject a $941,000 contract with Harvard Jolly Inc. for the project’s planning and design work. The commission delayed the vote after hearing their concerns, but authorized the contract two weeks later.
Past and present commissioners laud the project and said they believe it has sizable community support.
“I am thrilled to see this happen,” then-commission chairperson Kimberly Overman said last year.
In November 2022, in their final meetings as commissioners, Overman and Commissioners Stacy White and Mariella Smith joined the majority in voting to design the building in neoclassical style with a red brick facade, entry portico, Ionic columns and a raised cupola on the roof.
A 9/11 memorial
The corner of Lumsden Road and South Parsons Avenue isn’t particularly serene. Noise from honking car horns and accelerating vehicles assault pedestrians’ ears as traffic zips by on Lumsden Road’s four lanes.
Lilyquist, however, has long targeted the property at this corner as a viable community asset. Nearly 20 years ago, she authored a guest column in the then-St. Petersburg Times advocating for a park there, as a memorial to 9/11, while maintaining the oak trees. Later, she devised a site plan to include a post traumatic stress recovery center for veterans.
The land was in private ownership then, but the county, in three separate transactions, spent $5 million to acquire three parcels totaling 17 acres beginning in August 2019.
“We need green space. That’s what’s in our community plan and it’s being ignored,” Lilyquist told commissioners May 3. “It’s a land grab.”
The county plans to put the library on the western half of the property, closer to Woodview Drive than South Parsons Avenue. The 8.4 acres there are less heavily wooded and the conceptual drawings show as many as two dozen trees being spared and an estimated 50 new trees being planted.
Former Commissioner Stacy White, who championed the project before leaving office, said he hoped the county could preserve as many trees as possible and the area could be used an outdoor extension of the library where people could sit outside to enjoy a book or tap into the library’s wifi.
The remaining 8 acres on the east side of the property apparently face a different concept. It’s dubbed the “surplus parcel” and the conceptual drawings show more than 90 trees being taken down to make way for what could become an affordable housing complex and accompanying drainage.
The recently approved county contract with Harvard Jolly included a statement that said the property “is intended to be utilized for a future possible residential or other development.”
In an emailed statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Kim Byer, assistant county administrator for public works administration, said: “There is nothing currently planned for this property. ... Any future use of this property will consider community input and require board approval.”
Lilyquist has appeared at three consecutive County Commission meetings, taking her three minutes during public comment to ask the county to reconsider. She said she doesn’t plan to stop.
She recently offered advice to commissioners who planned to be a part of Brandon’s upcoming Fourth of July parade. The parade participants line up at the corner of Lumsden Road and South Parsons Avenue
Wave to your constituents, she said, then “look off to the left and see that canopy of oak trees and see that pristine conservation area you’re about to asphalt over.”