By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, the Tampa Tribune
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt was mocked by political opponents as “Commissioner No” because of how often she voted against development proposals that came before the Board.
It was a nickname that ultimately most Hillsborough residents came to see as a badge of honor, as she fought an often-lonely battle against projects that posed a threat to public resources, particularly Tampa Bay.
While she lost many of those development votes, her fight to protect the Bay and preserve Hillsborough’s natural heritage led to many landmark measures that continue to benefit our community, including the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, which uses a small amount of property taxes to buy and preserve significant lands. She was an early supporter of The Florida Aquarium and once served on its board, appreciating how the attraction enlightens visitors about the environment while entertaining them.
I recently interviewed Jan for an oral history of ELAPP being conducted for the county and the University of South Florida, and her comments revealed how she evolved into one of Florida’s most effective environmental champions.
Platt (pictured at age 10 above), who was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in Tampa, stresses stewardship is more important than ever: “When I was born 80 years ago, there were 1.7 million people in Florida. Now we have 20 million. We have almost as many people in Hillsborough as we had in the whole state back then.”
Her interest in conservation grew from her love of her outdoors. “I was blessed that my father was a fisherman, and because he didn’t have any boys, I became his fishing partner. So, we would fish lakes, streams, bays, rivers, bayous – any body of water.”
“Over the years, it would just kill me to see all the development that was destroying all the wetlands. There was a stream in the Town ‘N Country that was beautiful, crystal clear. I saw otter there. You could look down into the water and see the bass. And do you know when Town ‘N Country was developed that stream was used as a stormwater outfall.”
Her appreciation for what was at stake was further heightened when as the Field Director for the Girl Scouts of America working to develop what would be the Scouts’ first salt water coastal camp. She learned Pinellas County planned to build a sewer plant nearby with the foul outfall going directly into the Bay. She and supporters managed to get Pinellas to scrap the plan. Instead, it developed a reclaimed water system that is still being used.
When her beloved younger sister died of cancer, Platt decided to try to make an even greater difference in the community by running for office, winning election to the Tampa City Council and then the Hillsborough Commission, where she was not intimidated by the powerful developers who dominated local politics. Some of those commissioners who inevitably voted her down in those early years ended up going to prison on corruption charges – they had been bribed by developers.
Losing votes did not discourage her. She was intent on making her point. She kept in mind what her mother had taught her: “…a well-articulated “no” can be as powerful as a “yes.”
And she would go on to achieve great success in advancing environmental enlightenment. ELAPP, which has saved more than 60,000 acres, is a key example.
“I kept seeing lands destroyed, and there was no way to save them other than to block them by zoning. The commission was controlled by developers … so it appeared the only way to save land was to buy it.”
The program, funded by a small portion of property taxes, was adopted overwhelmingly by voters in 1987 and has been renewed twice in referendums by more than 70 percent of the vote. The commission in 2013 would rightly name the program after it greatest advocate.
But ELAPP was only one of Platt’s many environmental accomplishments. She was a relentless defender of Tampa Bay and helped form the Agency for Bay Management. This group brought together all the regulatory agencies, industries and citizen groups involved with the Bay to identify problems and develop solutions. “There was a need to put our heads together. It is easy to criticize; it’s hard to come up with solutions.”
The collaboration led to enormous progress on improving the Bay, and Platt credits local companies for addressing pollution issues.
“I was amazed at how they came around … I don’t think they had any knowledge of how they were hurting the Bay.”
Companies such as Tampa Electric Co. and Mosaic, she says, worked to clean up their operations without great resistance once they realized the threat to the Bay. She says getting local governments to improve sewer treatment systems was more difficult because of the costs involved. But ultimately they would join the effort. Tampa Bay now is healthier than it has been in decades. Platt, who retired from the commission in 1994, continues to serve on the Agency for Bay Management.
The environment was not Platt’s only concern. She was a relentless proponent of open and ethical government, a leading supporter of public libraries — our interview takes place in the Jan K. Platt Library in South Tampa — and literacy efforts.
She had to finally give up fishing a few years ago, given the side effects of successful cancer treatment. But she is happy her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter are devoted to her favorite past-time and that “I am the recipient of their catch.”
And despite the enormous comeback that Tampa Bay has enjoyed, thanks in large part to her efforts, she warns the estuary’s welfare is hardly assured.
“It requires constant vigilance. We need to not only appreciate the Bay but also protect it. You should not be afraid to stand up and speak out because the Bay is too important.”