Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lithia Body Farm

Hillsborough County is in constant pursuit of new businesses to grow our local economy. From a warehouse to advanced medical research in downtown Tampa with CAMLS, there is no business we are not interested in.

Now we may be able to boast about a new body farm in southeast Hillsborough, in the community of Lithia.

Yes, a body farm is what it sounds like. Well maybe not quite. Rather than a farm were bodies grow, it is a farm where bodies are placed to decompose to support research in forensic science -- to better understand the decomposition process in the elements and therefore improve the forensics for identification of remains and cause of death, leading to better case closure rates. Certainly a worthy goal.

The project has been in the works for about a year, as a collaboration between USF and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department.  Sheriff David Gee has agreed to donate a few acres from their training grounds in Lithia for the body farm, or as its known the trade, the Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training, or FORT.

USF admittedly forgot a step or two in the process, namely the public outreach.  Hence the meeting they hosted on April 23 at Pine Crest Elementary in Lithia.

Given the nearly 200 attendees at the meeting, this was a major oversight.  The thought of a body farm, in some cases, literally in their back yard, without any dialogue with the nearby residents, was not well received.  This project was not well know until the last couple of weeks, when most residents found out from the local news.

County Commissioner Stacy White, who represents the area, was very concerned as well, as he nor anyone else to our knowledge on the County Commission was contacted about the body farm plans. The county owns the land, and the County Commission will have to rezone it if the project is approved.

I don't know about you, but I think its quite reasonable to want to know more about body farm plans in your neighborhood.

USF attempted to recover by hosting the public meeting. We decided to attend to find out what this was all about and to video camera.

Public comments on the USF body farm.

The meeting was moderated by Eric Eisenberg, dean of USF’s College of Arts and Sciences. He had planned to organize the meeting by opening with some comments from a couple of experts and proponents of the project, Erin Kimmerle, associate professor of anthropology at USF, and Daniel Wescott, director of the Texas State University body farm in San Marcos, Texas. After some opening presentation, the audience was free to follow up with some one on one questions with the experts.

Experts speaking about the body farm.

The audience did not take kindly to that suggestion, as they wanted to be heard.  Eisenberg quickly adjusted, and allowed for more of a public comment program, followed up with the one on one questioning.

They got an earful. There were a handful of speakers that supported the body farm and the research goals. However, most speakers were against the project for various reasons. Few seemed to believe the proponents that there would not be an issue with smell.  Several residents expressed concerned about the lack of outreach and communications.  Others recommended other locations, further away from residential neighborhoods.  Concern about scavengers such as coyotes were raised on multiple occasions.  Yet more were frustrated that the southeast county had become a dumping ground over the last couple of decades for other undesirable facilities such as dumps, the Bill Young reservoir, the Sheriff's training facility all of which are often was noisy. Another speaker raised issues with laws, as in the Knoxville, TN body farm, there were no laws on the books regarding timeframes before bodies could be placed, handling veterans remains, and proper disposition of remains after they've full decomposed. Not to mention the impact on property values.

USF and the Sheriff bear the full responsibility here.  They blew it, whatever the merits of the body farm. They had to know it would be very controversial. Why did they wait a year?  That's either incompetence or they were trying to keep it under the radar, complete the deal, before the residents could react.

Would you want this in your neighborhood?

Apparently, USF listened, and they just announced they will seek a new location. 
The university pulled the plug on plans for the research facility in Lithia after unhappy residents on Thursday filled Pinecrest Elementary School’s cafeteria with questions on what the program would do to their water quality and property values. Neighbors also worried about scavengers and - most importantly - the smell around their homes.
Much of this could have been avoided had USF and the Sheriff been transparent over the last year. Regardless, it's good to know the process worked, and they listened.

This time.

UPDATED: Added Experts presentation video.

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