TAMPA, Fla. — Scientists at the University of South Florida are working to stop developers from building on one of the school's top nature preserves, which is used for hands-on classroom study and is home to countless plants and animals.
USF administrators recently released a request for information to companies, asking them to submit their ideas for possible projects on that site, which is adjacent to the main campus off of Fletcher Avenue and the Hillsborough River.
According to the university, this is one of the largest undeveloped tracts of I-75 within a metro area in the entire state.
Jeannie Mounger, a USF teaching associate and graduate student in the Integrative Biology Department, is helping lead the effort to stop the university from developing the forest preserve.
"This piece of property here, these 13 acres, are some of the last sandhill habitat in all of Hillsborough County," Mounger said.
The USF Forest Preserve is a haven for many of Tampa's birds, wildlife, wetlands and trails. This is also a main outdoor classroom to dozens of biology students, who Mounger said use the site to gain real-life experience while in school.
"Being able to bring students out here, we see it in their eyes the way they light up, the joy they have," she said.
But now, USF has released this request for information regarding "development options that would be suitable and attractive for USF" on the USF Forest Preserve Site and Golf Course.
"None of us knew about it," Mounger said.
USF acknowledged in the request that there are "special animals" like the gopher tortoise and threatened species such as the tri-colored heron, in the preserve.
The herons, alongside other rare or state-or-federally threatened birds, are a big draw for bird watchers to the Tampa Bay area as they find refuge in the preserve before flying to other parks in Hillsborough County, said Christian Brown, another teaching associate with the Department of Integrative Biology.
Now, many within the Integrative Biology department are asking the USF President's Office to take this request for information on possible development entirely off the table.
Adam Freeman, a spokesman for USF, released this statement to ABC Action News.
The primary goal of the Request for Information (RFI) is for the University of South Florida to explore options that might be available on the property. The RFI allows USF to gauge interest and obtain information to consider the best strategy for a potential project that could provide greater financial resources to support the university’s mission and benefit our students, faculty and staff. For example, funds generated annually from a ground lease on the property could be invested in an endowment that grows over time and provides new resources for USF to fund student scholarships, recruit new faculty members or support research opportunities.
USF is not required to take action on any of the proposals submitted by developers. The university is only gauging demand and listening to proposals at this time.
A portion of the property within the forest preserve is designated as federal wetlands and includes protected species. Proposals received by the university must consider options for mitigation, protecting wildlife and preserving unique natural features of the property in order to minimize any environmental impacts. Any potential project would have to fall within existing restrictions for the development of the property pursuant to USF’s master plan, City of Tampa codes and ordinances, and the requirements of other agencies, such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
But for many Tampa Bay Area residents, in addition to USF employees and faculty members, that's not enough of a guarantee.
This petition has now gathered more than 10,000 signatures in the past week, asking USF to end the request for potential proposals for the land.
"I think the community is very concerned," Mounger said.
Mounger said there are also concerns about how developing this piece of land could impact future water quality. Scientists say this preserve is situated on a tributary of the Hillsborough River. That is where Tampa Bay families get their drinking water from.
USF biologists said that keeping the preserve pristine and preserved, not building into it, helps keep the Hillsborough River, and in turn, our drinking water, clean.
Developers currently have until Monday, May 24 to submit their proposals for projects for the USF Forest Preserve.