CONSERVATIONISTS OPPOSE BALLFIELDS IN BROOKER CREEK by Roxanne Escobales

09/25/06

The Brooker Creek Preserve in Pinellas County provides an oasis of environmentally sensitive land in Florida’s most densely populated county. So when a local youth recreation group decided to use some of the land to build sports fields, environmentalists and neighbors spoke up. WMNF’s Roxanne Escobales reports.

North Pinellas resident Bob Loos has owned land in Crescent Oaks adjacent to Brooker Creek Preserve since 1992. The subdivision has 440 houses on 880 acres, and Loos says most people who live there were attracted by the abundance of nature on offer.

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As the chairman of the Crescent Oaks government relations committee, Loos and some members of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve attended a county environmental science forum at Weedon Island, another protected land in the Gateway area of St Petersburg. He was surprised to hear that the county planned to allow the East Lake Youth Sports Association, or ELYSA, to build sports fields on 38 acres of Brooker Creek, next to existing playing fields. Thousands of trees would be felled.

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But Pinellas Environmental director Will Davis says it shouldn’t be a surprise at all. The sports association had signed an agreement with the county three years ago to appropriate the land for ballfields. The county agreed to lease the land to the ELYSA for thirty years at one dollar a year.

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In the agreement, the county did not give the ELYSA carte blanche to build the ballfields. The association must get approval to use the land for active recreation. As it stands, the original Land Management Plan from 1993 for the preserve dictates that the preserve land be used for passive recreation. The county attorney is currently determining whether sports fields are included in that definition.

Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve senior executive Mathew Poling

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Poling is a bit of wunderkind in the local conservation world. A 16-year-old junior at East Lake High School, the Friends custom made Poling’s position of senior executive because he is too young to serve as a chairman by the state’s definition. Poling has volunteered at the preserve for the past five years and even lives on the land. He’s attributed with turning what started as a caretaking organization into an activist one, especially in the past year when the county wanted to use part of the environmentally sensitive lands to house a water blending plant.

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Pinellas County says that the 38 acres the proposed ballfields would sit on is a 19-year-old pine plantation that was originally a dairy pasture. It was always intended that the trees be harvested when they matured.

Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala was chair of the commission in 2003, when the ELYSA lease was signed.

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But the Friends’ Poling says that the sports fields would impact the environmentally sensitive lands.

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Poling says he and the Friends are not opposed to ball fields, but that the preserve is not the appropriate place for them.

Pinellas County is the most densely populated area in the state. Bound by water on three sides and a county line to the north, Pinellas is built out. That’s what makes the 82-hundred acre Brooker Creek Preserve in the north county so precious to environmentalists and residents. But according to Commissioner Latvala that also means that available land has to be used for such things as sports fields. She called it a catch-22.

ACT:

If the county attorney decides that the sports fields do NOT constitute passive recreation as laid out in the Brooker Creek Preserve land management plan, then public hearings must be held before it can change the definition. If it’s deemed that they DO fall under passive recreation, then the sports association can proceed with building the ballparks.

The Friends of the Brooker Creek Preserve are asking anyone who’s interested in opposing this to sign a petition, which can be found online at friendsofbrookercreekpreserve.org. Or you can phone 727 934 2680.

For WMNF News, I’m Roxanne Escobales.

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