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Environment

A majority of the land in the USF Forest Preserve is not suitable for development, a report says

A rickety wooden bridge crossing over a mossy green water filled with cypress knees and other vegetation.
Jeannie Mounger
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Cypress Creek, a tributary of the Hillsborough River, runs through the USF Forest Preserve, providing a wildlife corridor to other conservation lands to the East and West.

More than 450 acres is covered by wetlands, making development permits difficult to obtain, the report commissioned by USF said.

A property owned by the University of South Florida adjacent to its Tampa campus is mostly not suitable for development, according to an ecological assessment.

USF officials hired Heidt Design to take a comprehensive look at the 769-acre property north of Fletcher Avenue after community backlash to a decision by the university to seek proposals to develop it.

The report found that more than 450 acres of the property contain wetland habitat, which would make normal development activities extremely hard to permit.

“The time and expenditures for pursuing authorizations from the regulatory agencies plus the cost of construction make the area unfeasible for improvements beyond minimally intrusive activities, such as elevated boardwalks and observation platforms,” the report said.

The entire property, known as the USF Forest Preserve, stretches from a golf course on the west to the Hillsborough River on the east and is bordered by Fletcher Avenue on the south.

Heidt split the property into four areas based on ecological conditions and potential use.

The company said Area 2, which nearly stretches the length of the property from the eastern edge of the golf course to the river, was not suitable for development.

A map showing the four areas within the USF Forest Preserve
Heidt split the property into four areas based on ecological conditions and potential use. The company said Area 2 was not suitable for development.

However, the report said that area could be used as a wetlands mitigation bank, where developers would buy parcels of the property from the university in order to offset wetlands destruction in other areas they develop.

Area 2 is also a desirable property for purchase by a state or local conservation program, the report said. Hillsborough County leaders have already expressed interest in purchasing the property and recently found that it is eligible for the county’s land buying program.

The report found the best area for development is along the western edge of the property where the golf course is located. Other areas along the south edge bordering Fletcher Avenue contain uplands, which could also be developed.

Interim USF president Rhea Law formed an advisory committee to look at next steps for the property. The committee will review Heidt’s report and other information about the property before making recommendations for its future use.

Public meetings will be held before the committee delivers its recommendations in the next 45 days, Rhea said.

The committee's chairman is Tom Frazer, Dean of USF’s College of Marine Science, and it contains other USF administrators, faculty and students, including some who have been critical of plans to develop the property.

After learning about the university’s request for development proposals in April, students formed a group called Save USF Forest Preserve to inform the public and protect the land.

Many had learned in “natural classrooms” held on the preserve. They pointed to it’s ecological significance with wetlands and pine flatwoods forming habitat for hundreds of native plants and animals, including endangered or threatened species like the gopher tortoise. They also said the property contains native American artifacts.

In an email, Law, who is a land use attorney, said any potential use of the property should minimize environmental impacts.

“Any recommendations for a potential use or uses on the property would have to fall within applicable restrictions and must consider options for mitigation, protecting wildlife and preserving unique natural features of the property to eliminate or minimize any environmental impacts,” Law said. “Any areas of the property that are culturally significant for their connection to indigenous peoples would be legally protected and respected in any plans.”

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