Environmental land preservation at its best
December 5, 2009
Hillsborough County residents understand the value of the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, which has preserved more than 45,000 acres throughout the county. Last year nearly 80 percent of Hillsborough voters supported the reauthorization of the program.
An acquisition this week highlights voters' wisdom.
On Wednesday, county commissioners approved a $20 million deal to buy 1,673 acres of undeveloped land in northwest Hillsborough using ELAPP bond funds. The program is funded through a dedicated quarter-mill property tax.
It's a smart use of funds. With real-estate prices down, the county is able to realize bargains for taxpayers while avoiding the public costs that would result from sprawling development.
The purchase from Kay D. O'Rourke is significant for several reasons.
The land - between Keystone/Tarpon Spring Road and the Hillsborough-Pasco line - is in the critical Brooker Creek corridor and watershed. The acquisition will protect water resources, including the creek, and a large aquifer recharge area, while preserving critical wildlife habitat.
The land is one of the last large undeveloped tracts in this section of the county, and public land managers have been trying to secure it for more than six years. They deserve credit for their persistence. But O'Rourke should be applauded for working with government officials.
The O'Rourke property connects with the county's Lake Dan Preserve to the west. Lake Dan connects with the 8,000-acre-plus Brooker Creek Preserve in Pinellas. Farther south, that preserve connects with Hillsborough's Brooker Creek Buffer Preserve, just south of Tarpon Springs Road.
The new purchase means that more than 11,000 connected acres of environmentally sensitive land in northwest Hillsborough and the East Lake area of Pinellas are in public hands, forever shielded from development - an impressive achievement. This creates a major wildlife corridor and offers citizens passive recreational opportunities.
And consider this: The 13,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Park is not that far across the county line in Pasco. Establishing a corridor between Starkey and the O'Rourke land should be the next goal.
The state Legislature, which sadly last session failed to reauthorize the state's land program, Florida Forever, should pay attention.
ELAPP shows how wisely acquiring land spares the public costly problems while protecting valuable resources, including water supplies. Now Hillsborough residents will not only be able to enjoy visiting the O'Rourke property, but won't be faced with the traffic and other effects of a remote development.
As Hillsborough voters illustrated, there is widespread support for preserving land in Florida. State lawmakers need to wise up, look at the successes in northwest Hillsborough and northeast Pinellas and restore funding to Florida Forever in next year's session.
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