The University of South Florida is asking developers to submit proposals for a project on 769 acres it owns near the Tampa campus. The area includes a golf course and nature preserve. Environmental students started a petition about a week ago to protect the land, and have already garnered more than 7,600 signatures as of Monday night.
The property off Fletcher Avenue, just north of the USF Tampa campus, is one of the largest remaining undeveloped parcels along Interstate 75.
Stephen Hesterberg, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology, is part of the student-led grassroots movement. He said the online petition opposing any development of the parcel is getting some traction.
"I've never personally experienced a viral moment, but I have now. And the energy and enthusiasm, just from current and former students, as well as just the Tampa Bay public, is really incredible," he said.
Hesterberg also teaches the undergraduate course Principles of Ecology Laboratory, which is a requirement for a Bachelor's Degree in Biological Sciences, and studies the USF Forest Preserve.
He said a former student shared how the preserve impacted her life.
"We had a former student from Zoo Tampa who encountered river otters out at the preserve, and literally changed her career path because of that experience," he said.
David Lewis, an associate professor in USF's Department of Integrative Biology, said the preserve is used as a classroom and living laboratory. And that at least 15 different courses have used it in the past decade.
"It's important to Florida and Hillsborough County in the sense that we have lots of families in the state, particularly in the county, that are sending their students to USF and it's giving them access to this learning opportunity,” he said. “It's also important … because it preserves a lot of the state's heritage."
There are archaeological sites of past indigenous inhabitants on the property, according to Lewis. It also houses threatened and endangered plants and animals. And it's home to one of the last remaining dry upland habitats, called sandhills, in Hillsborough County.
“Then at the bottom are wetlands that protect the water quality in the Hillsborough River, which the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has classified as a Florida Outstanding Water,” said Lewis.
He is also on the USF Forest Preserve Advisory Committee, which manages the property, and he said the university did not reach out to the committee before sending out requests for land development ideas.
Proposals from developers must consider the protected wildlife and sensitive lands in order to minimize any environmental impacts, a USF spokesperson said in an email. He added that the university is not required to take action on any of the proposals, saying it’s only gauging demand.
The spokesperson also said the request for information allows the university to look at potential financial resources.
“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 or recruit new faculty members,” said the USF spokesperson.
David Lewis, the associate professor, opposes this development inquiry and said the university has positioned itself very well in recent years, becoming one of the forefront research universities in the state.
“I'm proud to be part of this university,” he said. “I think that the current master plan for the university, which runs through 2025, calls, very strongly in very many places, for protection of the preserve. So I look forward to our leadership to continue holding on to the hard-earned mantle of stewardship that it has.”