At the far northeast corner of Hillsborough County lie nearly 13,000 undeveloped acres that evoke old Florida.
Here, cabbage palms, cypress stands, otters and gopher tortoises preside over an almost 20-square-mile swath, all owned by the public.
Now a group of politically connected businessmen wants county commissioners to unload the property known as Cone Ranch. They say their goal is not to develop the land but to preserve its prairies and wetlands permanently by selling it to wealthy, private caretakers.
The idea is being met with a mixture of guarded interest and skepticism.
The Florida Conservation & Environmental Group says it would divide the land into six tracts, then help sell the pieces to people willing to sign binding pledges never to develop them.
The group would look for buyers willing to restore uplands and lowlands scarred by canals and decades of ranching. And the county would make millions in the deal.
"FCEG would like to preserve Cone Ranch forever and generate much needed revenue for Hillsborough County," said Ken Jones, a principal with the group.
Jones and others have been quietly making the rounds for more than a year, meeting with community leaders and environmentalists to sell the idea and seek suggestions. Former County Commissioner Jan Platt is among those who skeptical, if not openly hostile, to the idea.
"I know they've got a good story," said Platt, who remains a leading advocate for Florida's natural areas. "It's so hard to get the public to buy land in the first place. We should keep it and cherish it and nurture it, not sell it off and subdivide it."
But the idea has won an early possible supporter in County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who will present the idea to the board May 6.
"The reason I have been so intrigued by this is that it allows us to restore and preserve Cone Ranch and ensure that we permanently eliminate the possibility of its development," Hagan said. "This is a big deal."
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Cone Ranch has a storied history. It was most recently owned by Adnan Khashoggi, a Saudi arms dealer at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal and one-time real estate magnate.
Khashoggi hit hard times in the late 1980s. Hillsborough County acquired the ranchland for $12 million in a 1988 bankruptcy court purchase for use as a well field.
Tampa Bay Water holds the water rights, but environmental rules now make its use as a major source unlikely. There are no active plans for pumping at the site, said Paul Vanderploog, director of the county's Water Resource Services Department. A cattle rancher leases much of the land for $150,000 a year.
Canals large and small criss-cross the property, helping to prevent flooding in upstream Polk County but often leaving many of the ranch's wetlands parched. Despite that, it serves as part of a larger wildlife corridor flanked by other protected lands that connect the Green Swamp with the Hillsborough and other rivers and streams.
Offers come with some regularity, Vanderploog acknowledges, from a proposal to build affordable homes last year to Commissioner Jim Norman's 2005 pitch to build a sports complex there. All of them have fizzled.
"I would hate to see it turned it into commercial or residential property. That would just be a tragedy," said Scott Emery, a former Water Department employee who now works as an environmental consultant.
Emery has led Florida Conservation & Environmental Group representatives on several tours of the property, but said he is not being paid by the group.
It wouldn't take much to dam some of the canals and revive some of the more sickly wetlands by restoring natural water flows, Emery said without offering an opinion on the plan.
The proposal calls for carving the ranch into six plots of about 2,000 acres each. The group would then seek buyers who would be permitted to build a "single caretaker unit" — a home, stable or equipment building, Jones said.
Buyers would agree to a permanent conservation easement barring more intense development. They could be held to an enforceable management plan for maintaining the land in close to its natural state. Tampa Bay Water would retain pumping rights.
"You preserve Cone Ranch, which is not something currently being done by the county," Jones said.
The county would keep at least 800 acres for a possible public park. A booklet shown to community leaders estimates that Hillsborough could make $35 million to $45 million before "customary transaction fees," that are not disclosed — essentially the Florida Conservation & Environmental Group's profit.
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The use of conservation easements has grown in recent years as a way for government to preserve pristine private lands without having to buy them outright. The Nature Conservancy helps secure them from private landowners across the country as a way to protect large ecosystems, and has been working with this group on its proposal.
Property owners who agree to the easements may view it as a legacy. There are also substantial financial benefits, including estate and capital gains tax shelters and a property tax exemption.
What is unusual about the Hillsborough plan is government selling the land to private parties who then agree to conserve it, said Keith Fountain, director of land acquisition for the Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter. It may be a viable plan, he said, if the county feels the land isn't useful for wells.
But Thomas Reese, a Pinellas County land use and environmental lawyer who has helped prepare conservation easements, says the proposal as described by a reporter is curious.
"You own this land. Why would you release it?" he said. "This whole thing just has a lot of red lights."
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Some Hillsborough environmentalists who have been briefed on the proposal say they are at least willing to listen, particularly as some governments cut back on spending for land preservation.
"As they always say, the devil's in the details," said Ann Paul, regional coordinator of Audubon Florida. "I'm thinking in a lot of cases we need to explore options to try to stretch our conservation dollar."
Dick Eckenrod, the former executive director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program who remains active in environmental causes, says the question for him is whether this proposal does more to preserve habitat than the current owner is doing.
"I'm interested in really any concepts that might lead toward a more permanent protection and restoration of the wildlife habit and water resources on that property," he said. "This is a project that has a lot of potential and is worth a look."
Hagan, the commission chairman, said that's all he wants his colleagues to do: Take a look. He says the ranch is closed to the public now, and part of it could be opened with this proposal.
He said he'll try to ensure the public has every chance to weigh in, and may recommend creating an advisory panel of environmentalists.
"This sounds innovative, and we should have a debate on it," Hagan said. "There's going to be a very lengthy and transparent process. At the end of the day, if it's determined that the concerns are valid, then it's dead on arrival."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.