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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Scott, Cabinet OK land protection deal on historic Pasco ranch



Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet on Tuesday approved state purchase of an historic ranch in Pasco County that will protect 617 acres near an important watershed from being converted into housing subdivisions, while still allowing cattle grazing on the land.

The state and Pasco County will pay $3 million each for a conservation easement on the site, known as the Phillips-Mathis Ranch, located west of Interstate 75 near Old Pasco Road and State Road 52, and the property's western boundary is a buffer between the rapidly-developing I-75 corridor and the nearby Cypress Creek preserve and wellfield, owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The ranch property is zoned R-3, for up to three homes per acre. It's the 22nd tract on the Florida Forever land acquisition list to be acquired under Florida's Rural and Family Lands program, totaling nearly 15,000 acres statewide.

Watching the vote at the state Capitol was Neil Mathis, 47, who said his ancestors acquired the ranch land in the 1860s. "We've got seven generations there," Mathis said, clutching a cowboy hat in his hand. "We fought to hold on to it. We love the land."  

Mathis said his ancestors were forced to flee Fernandina Beach on the northeastern tip of Florida after they were "invaded" during the Civil War and they decided to homestead in Pasco."They got run out of there by the Union soldiers," Mathis said.

Mathis' mother, Clara Christine Phillips, who turns 75 in September and who has lived on the ranch for her entire life, said: "I want to die right there."

A second and much larger easement approved by Scott and the Cabinet Tuesday is in rural Dixie County, part of a much larger tract between the Suwannee and Steinhatchee rivers owned by the Lyme Timber Company of Hanover, N.H. The company manages 650,000 acres in more than a dozen states.

The 8,138-acre protection easement, at a price of $4.2 million, allows continued timber harvesting on the site while permanently limiting development in a North Florida county where timber is the largest employer and where the preservation of open space is vital to the popularity of hunting. 

"The hunting culture is strong there," said Tom Morrow, managing director of Lyme Timber. "This land will remain available for those local hunting clubs to continue their activities."

A report by the Department of Environmental Protection on the Dixie easement said it "will permanently limit development while allowing the landowner to sustainably harvest timber, thereby ensuring that important forestry jobs stay in the community, which is the county's largest employer."

"This is a very good deal and a very big deal," said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida. "This is property on the coast and ultimately it is vulnerable to development." Both projects had strong local political support by the Pasco and Dixie county commissions.


[Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2016 1:11pm]


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