By Tamas Mondovics

 

“We do not want a body farm in Lithia,” said Lithia resident Terry Holden representing the majority of a large crowd that recently gathered for a public meeting to discuss a proposed Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training (FORT).

Dubbed by the media as a “body farm,” the University of South Florida (USF) project raised plenty of concerns and questions prompting hundreds of residents to voice their thoughts in front of USF representatives at Pinecrest Elementary School in Lithia.

The program between USF and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) is said to provide a research and training opportunity in applied forensic sciences as the facility would sit on two acres of County-owned and HCSO-controlled land located at the Walter C. Heinrich Practical Training Center at 14063 S. County Road 39 in Lithia, and would utilize USF’s After Life Body Donation Program for research in forensic anthropology and legal medicine.

It is understood that FORT, the open-air facility, would allow space for bodies to naturally decay for researchers and law enforcement agencies to better understand how the local climate affects decomposition.

The already controversial program is a hard sell anywhere, but when Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, who represents the communities in and around Lithia, heard about the project, things came to a halt.

“I’ve learned of this initiative by a professor at USF in the newspapers at the same time as the constituents that I represent,” White said. “I was shocked that USF has apparently not engaged in dialogue with any local elected officials. How in the world would someone think people are going to react when they hear that a ‘body farm’ might be coming into the community? This is an ivory tower academia mindset at its finest.”

In response to White’s comments as well as to the mainly negative reactions of many local residents, Eric Eisenberg, dean of USF College of Arts and Sciences, began the discussion by taking one step back.

“This is no way a done deal,” he said. “USF has worked with the county for more than a year, but we must admit that we should have done a better job of communicating as we did not engage the county commissioner.”

Eisenberg made clear of USF’s next step in connection with its project when he said, “We will not move forward with the project until we meet with Commissioner Stacey White.”

Eisenberg also told the roomful of residents that USF did not approach the Sheriff’s Office but that HCSO offered the space as the work and the research also benefits law enforcement through straining in identifying crime scenes, locating clandestine burials and human identification just to name a few.

Taking a turn to voice their concerns, residents one by one acknowledged the facilities importance, as long as it was not in their back yard.

“We seem to be the dumping ground for anything that people don’t want,” Holden said, while her husband Scott told USF officials, “This is the first public meeting about this project. You have missed the important step of talking to residents a year ago.”

Just prior to the meeting, Commissioner White said that his office has received dozens of calls from residents living near the proposed site saying, “No thanks,” and added that citizens of this area have always felt that they have been dealt the things that no one else wants in their back yards.

“Residents are saying, ‘here we go again,” White said. “This body farm will be pushed upon the residents of east Hillsborough County.”

With other forensic anthropology research sites located on university property, White said, “I think USF needs to go back to the drawing board and reconsider its proposed location.”

At least for now, it seems USF will do just that, giving many Lithia area residents some hope that FORT will find its home somewhere else.

For more information, visit www.forensics.usf.edu.