SHADY HILLS — Keith Wiley stood on a berm in an old cattle ranch that's now called Jumping Gully Preserve.
From here you can see a vast expanse of wet prairie grassland, with oaks lining roughly 200 acres within a corridor that would link two huge environmental tracts. It's a prime birding area, home to more than 100 sandhill cranes, burrowing owls and several species of sparrow.
It's not pristine. Until a few years ago, cattle occasionally roamed the fields. Now, periodic controlled burns help clear out "undesirable" plants such as dog fennel that form a miniature canopy system that crowds out native plants and shrubs. Still, the spot offers a serene retreat from what can be a hectic world.
"You kind of get a sense of openness," said Wiley, who manages Pasco's environmental lands program. "I don't know, I just think it's good for people. When you come out here and the clouds are right, it has that kind of big sky feel. It's just nice to feel like you've actually got some space to breathe a little bit."
The nearly 600-acre preserve in north central Pasco is one of the tracts purchased with money from the Penny for Pasco sales tax that voters approved in 2004. Residents tend to think of Penny money paying for new schools and road improvements — and much of it did — but the tax is also raising more than $35 million to acquire environmental lands.
So far, officials have spent about $13.2 million to buy 1,615 acres. About $14.6 million has not yet been spent, and another $7.6 million is expected to be collected before the tax runs out in two years.
When voters decide Nov. 6 whether to extend the Penny for another decade, $45 million will be at stake for the land program. Officials plan to use that money and leftover proceeds from the first round to acquire the remainder of seven wildlife corridors, about 6,340 acres. Based on rough appraisal estimates, that effort could cost between $63 million and $76 million.
"We know its going to take both pennies to put the money in the bank to preserve this for our children and our children's children," said Michele Baker, the chief assistant county administrator.
• • •
For most voters, the environmental land money is the most ambiguous portion of the Penny. People understand using the tax to buy police cruisers, rebuild schools or improve highway intersections. Buying conservation land, and the long-term strategy behind it, is a little harder to discern.
That could be why the program has drawn a disproportionate share of fire from critics. Many conservatives say it's simply not a good time for government to be buying property.
That's why Steve Grossenbacher, 76, of Wesley Chapel plans to vote against extending the tax.
"I don't know what the hell we're going to buy with that," he said. "Let's sell some of the property (already in public ownership) and put that money in our coffers to pay for police, fire and schools."
In a meeting four months ago, a pair of county commissioners proposed lowering the percentage of the tax for land purchases. They couldn't recruit a third member of the five-person board to join them.
"I don't feel like they need 45 million more dollars to buy more land," said Commissioner Henry Wilson, the most outspoken board member against conservation purchases. He argued the money would be put to better use for economic development or transportation projects.
At the commission meeting that followed, a parade of environmentalists implored commissioners to keep the environmental money intact. The county plans to spend 40 percent of its share on transportation projects. Economic development, land acquisition and public safety equipment would each get 20 percent of the county's Penny money.
"Preserved land has benefits that contribute economic value," said Julie Wert, president of the Nature Coast chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. "These lands contribute directly to our quality of life with clean air and water."
After they spoke, Commissioner Ann Hildebrand lauded the program and called the citizen testimony "priceless."
• • •
Progress has been somewhat slow for the environmental lands program.
Created in 2005 after voters approved the first Penny, the program grew out of a 2000 court settlement with environmentalists in which the county agreed to study and start acquiring the wildlife corridors between major well fields.
The Penny brought in money much faster than officials could spend it. Officials say a major reason for that is because the acquisition process is cumbersome.
First, a landowner nominates his or her property for potential sale (the program is voluntary). Then, a selection committee reviews the parcel to see if it meets the program's broad goals. If it does, a smaller group of biologists and ecologists takes a tour to judge the land on several scientific criteria, including the value of habitat and potential for restoration.
Then the committee decides whether to send the proposal to county commissioners. That process can take about six months. "That's actually the easy part," Wiley said.
After that, negotiations begin with the seller. Officials agree upon a price based on several appraisals, and also decide whether to buy the land outright or purchase a cheaper conservation easement. For example, the county in 2009 bought a portion of Jumping Gully and put an easement on the rest of the property. It bought the remaining rights to the land two years later.
The negotiations and final approval from the commission can take anywhere from four months to a couple years. Staffers are working on a new process to put all of the land in the proposed corridors — with the owners' permission — through the first half of the process simultaneously. That means the county could immediately begin contract negotiations with willing sellers.
"When things were booming, it was very difficult to compete with a developer that could give someone 'x' number of dollars," Wiley said. "In a market like this, there is an opportunity for a program like this to really kind of capitalize on some pretty good opportunities out there."
Some of the unspent money was being set aside for a deal — now stalled — to buy the Cross Bar Ranch in north Pasco. The 12,400-acre tract was acquired by the Pinellas utilities department decades ago to protect drinking water sources as bay-area communities fought "water wars."
There are no plans to do so, but Pinellas could theoretically sell the land to a developer. Pasco would like to preserve the land in perpetuity. For several years, Pasco was working on a deal that would have combined county and state money to buy the land. Pasco officials had to slow down other acquisitions to ensure they had enough in the bank for the Cross Bar deal.
Most state land-buying money has dried up, and Pinellas doesn't seem as willing to sell.
• • •
The 125-acre Upper Pithlachascotee River Preserve lies in the same wildlife corridor as Jumping Gully. It's more of a forested wetland, though workers have been clearing some oak trees to let more light through the canopy and allow pines to flourish.
The site is also more developed than Jumping Gully. An old homestead was converted to a nature center. Contractors hope to finish a 1,500-foot boardwalk to lead visitors throughout the tract, including to views of a massive cypress. New restrooms and a native plant garden will also spur recreational visits.
But open space doesn't just provide recreation.
Coastal properties can provide natural flood protection when a storm hits, avoiding damage and clean-up costs. Preserving land can also help filter groundwater that is later pumped by public wells.
Many critics say buying conservation land reduces property tax collections by removing that land from the tax rolls. But much of the land the county buys is agricultural, and is taxed at substantially lower rates than residential or commercial property. Also, studies show that people tend to pay a premium for homes located next to open spaces and parks.
"There's a lot of things these ecosystems provide," Wiley said. "It's more than just bugs and bunnies crossing the road. They're real things. For some reason some people just ignore the value of these services."
Consider a map of Pasco. Roughly a third of the land is in public ownership. Many more acres are undeveloped farmland. If that sounds like a lot of open land, it is.
Now, recall the construction boom from a few years ago. Experts say it's only a matter of time before it comes back. One University of Florida projection shows more than 300,000 people moving to Pasco by 2040. The county's long-range transportation plan assumes an even higher figure.
"When you're talking about environmental land preservation, you're talking about a long view," Baker said. "The long view is 50 years from now when this county has grown the way it's forecast to grow. These green beltways might be all that's left that's green."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.