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Pasco ranch land a priority on state land purchase list

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet put the vast Cross Bar Ranch on Florida's priority list for preservation Tuesday. But the money to buy it remains elusive.

The Cabinet's 4-0 vote should intensify efforts to find ways to pay for Cross Bar, which is valued at $176-million, according to property appraiser records. But the state's land purchase program, Florida Forever, lacks enough money to pay for at least 21 other priority projects ahead of Cross Bar.

"Am I right, we don't actually have the money to buy much of any of this right now?" asked Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Cabinet member, causing chuckles in the audience. "Hopefully, we will."

The 12,500-acre ranch in central Pasco is owned by Pinellas County, bought in pieces in the 1970s and '80s when area communities fought "water wars" to control drinking water. Tampa Bay Water, which governs the region's water resources, now manages the wells there.

The land also is home to pine straw harvesting and 17 endangered or at-risk species — including a pair of whooping cranes seen recently, Pasco County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader told the Cabinet. Ultimately, Pasco officials want the land to be available for people to view wildlife and a piece of old Florida.

"It's extremely critical that we keep these properties in public ownership for future generations to enjoy," Schrader said.

Pinellas wants to sell the land because the water disputes are history, and Pinellas wants the money to expand its utility system.

But selling the land could take several years and lots of money — and it relies on the state continuing its Florida Forever program, which is set to expire in 2010. The land preservation program provides $300-million annually, but the state has an $11-billion list of property it says should be preserved.

While Crist supports adding more money for land preservation — a popular program — the Legislature would have to approve the extra funds at a time when money is so scarce that lawmakers are looking to cut spending on education, health care and the courts. Florida Forever relies on real estate documentary stamp taxes, which are decreasing.

Besides state money, Pasco officials want to use county sales tax revenue and perhaps a private conservation fund such as the Nature Conservancy to help pay for the property.

Both counties and the state have to agree on a purchase price, because they consider the $176-million value too rough. The state will do its own appraisal and evaluation. Pasco and Pinellas could do their own reviews, too.

While Pasco officials suggest the cost could be lower than estimated, Pinellas utilities director Pick Talley suggested the value might be higher. But a purchase could be paid over multiple years if necessary, he said.

Pasco likely will take money for conservation land purchases from its Penny for Pasco sales tax increase of 2004. About $37-million is available, and County Administrator John Gallagher said he plans to elevate Cross Bar over other potential purchases.

"Something this significant can take two or three years. We're optimistic to get it done this year," Talley said of a purchase agreement.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Pasco ranch land a priority on state land purchase list 02/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2008 9:26pm]
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