TAMPA — An advisory panel Friday did not dismiss a business group's proposal to divide and sell Hillsborough County's bountiful Cone Ranch to conservation-minded buyers.
It may have been the best reaction the group could have hoped to receive.
The plan has attracted skeptics who worry the 12,800-acre swath of pasture and wetlands in northeast Hillsborough would fall into developer's hands. Panelists hurled questions at the presenters Friday that seemed to indicate similar concerns.
Ken Jones, a principal with the potential brokers — Florida Conservation & Environmental Group — worked to ease concerns. The group's success likely rides on a recommendation from the panel, which county commissioners charged with vetting the plan.
"It shows they have a very open mind to preserving Cone Ranch," Jones said of the panel's response.
He said the biggest triumph was getting some on the panel to recognize that the property, which is owned by Tampa Bay Water, is not currently being preserved.
"It was gratifying to hear them say that because we've been saying that for a very long time," he said.
Under the proposed plan, Jones' group would not buy the land from the county. Officials would transfer the land, now owned by the water department, to a nonprofit trust governed by a board of citizens, county officials and environmentalists, Jones said.
The county makes money from the sale to private buyers and Jones's group collects a 5 to 9 percent fee as a broker. If there are not buyers at the time of sale, Jones said he would pursue a third-party financier to front the money, possibly from conservation groups.
As part of the transfer, a conservation easement will be drafted to mandate how the land is used and maintained.
Cone Ranch would be split into six, 2,000 acre parcels, each of which is then sold to a private buyer. The buyers must agree to the terms of the easement, though the trust's board may permit adjustments.
The remaining 800 acres would become a public park used for passive recreation.
Three members of the public condemned the proposed arrangement, saying zoning restrictions would be more effective, and that giving the property to private buyers would allow for environment-compromising development.
While panelists seemed set as ease by portions of the pitch, they weren't quickly moved to endorse it.
Most raised questions about the buyers-to-be and what rights they have to the property. One panelist asked if the land could be leased or sold by the buyer. Another wanted to know what happens if it goes into foreclosure.
"The biggest angst I'm hearing out there … is fear of the unknown," said panelist Denise Layne, executive director of Coalition 4 Responsible Growth, a Lutz nonprofit.
Keith Fountain, the land acquisition director for Florida's chapter of the Nature Conservancy, addressed most easement questions. He told the panelist an easement can take many forms, with provisions so specific as to protect one particular species of animal.
For example, the document could allow hunting and fishing, but restrict the number of participants and where they are permitted on the property. An easement can also prevent digging trenches, planting crops, building homes or paving roadways.
Future buyers of the parcel must oblige those restrictions unless the trust's governing board agrees to release them from the commitment, Fountain said.
As the panelists set the agenda for their next meeting, the presentation seemed to spark more questions than it answered.
Panelists still wanted more information on making the land part of the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. Some also wanted to know the legal viability of commissioners simply imposing a conservation easement on the land.
Others said they wanted to know the value of Cone Ranch and recommendations on how to spruce up a years-old land management plan before reaching a decision.
Answers to those questions could be months away, so a decision from the panel may come sometime in 2010.
"There's a lot of options out there," Layne said after the meeting. "I think we're realizing there may not be any one solution to this large property."
Staff writer Steven Overly can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.