Temple Terrace residents grapple over bat tower

08/12/13 Janelle Irwin
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Temple Terrace has lots of bats and preservationists want to give them a new home. A bat tower was built in the 1920s was torched by an arsonist decades ago and now the city is taking steps to make a replica, but it’s causing friction in the community. Tim Lancaster is the president of the Temple Terrace Preservation Society.

“Temple Terrace had one of the original Campbell towers in the 1920s and it stood until 1979 when it was burned down. Nobody knows how or why, but it’s suspected that it was arson. At the time, the city was in the process of moving the tower from its original location which is now, literally what’s left of it, is in the river and they were going to move the original tower to Riverhills Park during the 70s before it was lost to arson.”

There are three remaining bat towers that were constructed from design plans by bat enthusiast Charles Campbell. One is in the Florida Keys and two others are in Texas. The idea behind building one is to attract multiple bats to a location where they feast on mosquitoes. The Temple Terrace Preservation Society had decided to build a new tower in Riverhills Park. But some residents weren’t happy with the spot.

“The overriding concern in that location was the vista of the river and that the tower might block – partially impact the view of the river from the street.”

It would have blocked Scott Hines’ view. He lives right across the street from where organizers had originally planned to build a new tower. Hines doesn’t buy into the argument that a bat roost will reduce the mosquito population -- which he said isn’t really a problem anyway.

“Brazilian bats don’t eat that many mosquitoes because they’re larger bats. We don’t really seem to have a mosquito issue. But the Brazilian bats prefer larger beetles and moths and if you go to the website, you’ll find out that’s true. And so, yes, they’ll eat some mosquitoes, but the amount might be like, 1% of what they really want to eat.”

After Hines and other residents expressed concerns, the Temple Terrace Preservation Society and City Council decided to go back to the drawing board. Council member Grant Rimbey is on the preservation society’s board. He expects city council to vote next Tuesday on one of four sites that have been identified as possibilities.

“The way I see it playing out is that we’ll be voting on one of the four sites and there’s two that are basically in the Riverhills Park area and there’s two that are, sort of further out, kind of inaccessible by bike or walking. It’s a site, I don’t think it’s the best site, but it’s out near Rotary Park.”

Temple Terrace resident Hines is worried a tower will end up being too close to someone’s front yard.

“You know, to me you don’t need 600,000 of anything living across the street – certainly not wild animals.”

Lancaster, the preservation society president, said there were several criteria for choosing a good location for the tower, including being close to water.

“Once it gets dark, when the bats emerge, the first thing they tend to like to do is go to water. Obviously bodies of water attract mosquitoes and insects.”

All of the proposed sites are located on the Hillsborough River.

“The roost itself, ideally, would have a southern exposure so it gets a certain amount of – like 6 hours or so of sun each day to keep the interior of the roost warm.”

The structure is projected to cost about $50,000. Temple Terrace City Council member Rimbey said half is funded through a grant from Hillsborough County.

“Half of the money has been raised over the last ten years by the preservation society by selling custom labeled bat wine and t-shirts and plush toys and God knows what. I mean, you name it and we’ve sold it. But it’s all under $15, so you can imagine how long it took to raise $25,000.”

Besides mosquito control, there are other benefits to having an above-ground bat roost. The University of Florida has two towers. Crowds gather each night to watch some 300,000 bats emerge into the night. That could mean people drive in from neighboring cities and stay for dinner or other entertainment. But critics, like Temple Terrace resident Hines, think that many bats could cause health problems.

“There’s many different things – there’s Histoplasma from the guano, whether it will be kept clean, whether they’ll do a good job cleaning it, there’s unhealthy and there’s there’s also the smell of the bats – their musks.”

And Temple Terrace Preservation Society president Lancaster added some residents have complained about the possibility of stinking up the area. He said the Florida-native species that will be the most prevalent, the Brazilian free-tailed bat, does have an odd odor.

“The scent that they put off is subjective. From what we’ve been – understand – it’s got the same compounds in it that corn tortillas have – some people think it smells like corn tortillas. I personally think it smells kind of like a musky odor faintly reminiscent of roof tar.”

According to city council member Rimbey, a site plan has already been presented to the city. He said he hopes to choose a site at the meeting next Tuesday so the preservation society can move forward with construction.

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