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Residents have say about proposed USF 'body farm'

LITHIA — About 150 residents packed Pinecrest Elementary School cafeteria on Thursday, many to voice dissent with the University of South Florida's proposed outdoor research facility for studying the effects of the elements on corpses.

What was intended to be an informational meeting to explain the project turned into an hour of public comments criticizing the so-called "body farm," though some supporters spoke up as well.

Concerns ranged from the smell of decaying bodies and diminished property values to animals it would attract.

USF faculty members tried to assure residents that smell was not an issue, and similar facilities in other states have become sources of pride for the local communities. Research conducted on the site — a 2-acre piece of the 230-acre Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office training grounds — would benefit law enforcement and help solve cold cases.

The site would be enclosed by a 7-foot fence and would be hidden.

But residents said they were caught off-guard by this month's announcement of the project, and wondered why they were out of the loop until now. USF has been working with the Sheriff's Office since March 2014 and with county officials for months.

USF's Eric Eisenberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, apologized for not sooner informing County Commissioner Stacy White, who represents the area. White voiced opposition to the facility this week.

USF is paying for the project with grants and fundraising and is ready to move forward with construction, but it needs approval from the County Commission.

Eisenberg said nothing is final and concerns would be considered.

Many residents were displeased with what they see as a trend of county projects being pushed to south Hillsborough. Joseph Pereira, who has lived in Lithia for 31 years and now lives on Wendall Avenue near the proposed site, said he's already bothered by sirens and gunfire from the police training facility.

"Every possible thing Hillsborough County doesn't want to put anywhere else, they dump it on us," Pereira said.

The town hall meeting began with a presentation by USF Forensic Anthropology Laboratory scientific director Erin Kimmerle, who is spearheading the project. She attempted to show how similar efforts by the university have assisted law enforcement throughout the state in unsolved murders, of which there are more than 500 in the bay area, she said.

From there, presenters had arranged small tables with experts where residents could ask questions. But opponents in the audience demanded an opportunity to make public comments, and more than a dozen lined up to speak.

Comments opposing the project were greeted with resounding applause.

"We live, we work, we play in Lithia," resident Terry Holden said. "Find a different and more suitable location. … How about on USF property?"

A few dozen people stayed after to ask questions and learn more about the proposal.

There were supportive statements, too, for the project from residents, but they were met with quieter applause and some disapproving shouts.

Kirk Smith of Dover, a backer who said he saw the merits in the science and research, offered for it to be on his 4-acre property, which the audience enthusiastically, if not sarcastically, applauded.

Proponents lauded the facility for its ability to assist police in missing persons cases.

"Why are we opposing something that's not only a benefit for law enforcement but also families?" asked Frances Chavez, who has lived in Lithia for five years. "It's time we realize progress is going to happen."