TAMPA — While proponents are going full speed ahead with plans for a high-speed ferry service across Hillsborough Bay, some environmentalists are raising objections to the proposed site for the ferry terminal in south Hillsborough County.
Charles Lee, vice president of Audubon of Florida, sent an email blast last week criticizing plans to use part of the Fred and Idah Schultz Preserve for a ferry terminal, a parking lot and a service road. Lee said developers had teamed up with former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik and county officials to “grab the land for non-conservation purposes.”
“From Audubon’s perspective, the real issue here is: Is it appropriate to cannibalize preservation land for this purpose,” Lee said in an interview Friday. “The public spent $2.5 million and more on environmental restoration there. Now Ed comes along with a great idea to put a ferry service there and he wants to go right through the middle of environmental preservation and conservation lands to a ferry terminal.”
The 134-acre park was named for Audubon’s first warden in the Hillsborough Bay area and his wife. In 1995, the land was purchased jointly by the county’s land conservation program, known as ELAPP, and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The two agencies split the $370,000 purchase price.
A blend of state grants and water management funds totaling $2.7 million were spent restoring the land to native habitat. The property was formed from the spoils of dredging.
Turanchik has proposed trading 46 acres owned by the South Swell Group, a development company, for 20 acres on the western edge of the preserve. The land is owned by the water management district and leased to the county ELAPP program.
Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon in the Tampa Bay area, said Turanchik’s deal would set a harmful precedent for ELAPP, the agency whose formal title is the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program.
“Never in the history of ELAPP has land purchased for conservation purposes gone to a for-profit company,” Paul said. “We’re concerned this would set a precedent that would make it hard for the county government to deny future additional for-profit entities that demand use of conservation lands.”
Turanchik dismissed Audubon’s arguments against the ferry, saying they are based on falsehoods. He said the 20 acres that would be used for the ferry terminal, as well as for a public “Schultz Ferry Park,” were not part of the $2.7 million restoration. The park and terminal site consists of leftover fill dirt with very few native plantings.
“The western portion didn’t have much done to it because it was reserved for another phase that they never got to,” Turanchik said. “It was reserved for a public park. Everyone involved in the project knows that.”
The service road that Lee complained about running “through the middle” of the conservation lands will actually run along the southern edge of the property, Turanchik said. Early plans called for a park in the preserve and a road to reach it.
Turanchik said there is already 3,000 feet of county right of way leading up to Port Redwing Road, which is closed to the public. The road Turanchik proposes would follow the county right of way and extend out to a parking lot for ferry commuters.
“This roadway would have to be done in any event,” Turanchik said. “That’s the only way for taxpayers to get on the property they paid for.”
Though the land belongs to the water management district, it is managed by the county ELAPP program and listed on its maps.
Jan Smith, longtime member and former chairman of the ELAPP General Committee, said she too fears the deal could open the way for similar exchanges with private companies. ELAPP lands are vetted carefully by the general committee before they are purchased, Smith said, and must meet certain standards.
“I think my biggest concern is the precedent you’re setting, taking property that meets specific criteria and then be willing to trade if off for some public-private venture that you don’t even know will be successful,” Smith said.
In making his pitch for the ferry service, Turanchik has touted the amount of air pollution that will be reduced when an estimated 1,500 daily commuters take the ferry to MacDill Air Force Base instead of driving their cars.
But Lee maintains those environmental gains will be more than canceled out by a fueling facility for high-speed boats and a surface parking lot large enough hold 1,500 cars. The terminal and the parking lot will take up so much of the 20 acres, Lee said, he doesn’t know how a park will fit on the rest.
“I think Ed is trying to wrap his ferry terminal in the veneer of a park to make it more saleable,” he said.
The ferry terminal proposal will be presented to the water management district governing board on Aug. 26. Lee said Audubon will be there in opposition.