TAMPA — Cone Ranch got second-tier ranking in 1998 from a committee that recommends what land Hillsborough County should purchase for preservation.
Sure, the 12,800 acres of pasture and scrub in eastern Hillsborough were part of an important wildlife corridor and watershed. But Cone Ranch was already owned by the county's water department, and thus considered safe from being lost to development.
Now a separate committee is asking that the original ranking get revisited in light of a proposed sale of the property.
It's not the proposed sale that has members of the group concerned per se, said Jan Smith, chairwoman of the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. Rather, it's the acknowledgement by county water officials that they are doing nothing now to preserve the ranch as a healthy ecosystem. That is causing the committee to revisit the ranking, she said.
Over the years, the land has been crisscrossed with drainage canals that have harmed or destroyed hundreds of wetlands. And water officials have said they have no intention of filling in those canals or doing anything else that might diminish the value of Cone Ranch, in case they decide to sell it now or later.
"That (the vote) just confirms the committee's interest in seeing the property preserved," said Kurt Gremley, the county's ELAPP acquisition manager.
ELAPP is a voter-approved program that allows the county to buy and preserve endangered environmentally valuable land.
The Cone Ranch issue came to a head after the St. Petersburg Times revealed that a group of businessmen is asking the county to consider selling the land so that it could subdivide it into six 2,000-acre parcels and resell them to private owners, with the rest remaining in public hands.
The group, calling itself Florida Conservation and Environmental Group, is seeking permission to subdivide the ranch into the parcels and broker their sale.
The business group says it would sell the parcels only to people who agree to conserve the land in perpetuity, and at least partially restore its wetlands and native vegetation, under agreements it would write for a fee.
The county would make money on the sale, and the buyers and environmental fixes would restore the land's natural value as a wildlife corridor and watershed.
A win-win for government and nature, they say.
Ken Jones, a principal with the group, said he welcomed the discussion by the ELAPP general committee.
"I'm delighted by the fact that the ELAPP (advisory committee) is essentially agreeing that Cone Ranch is not protected, which is what we have contended," Jones said. "I hope we can work with ELAPP to come up with a creative solution that preserves Cone Ranch."
Cone Ranch was purchased as a potential well field, but its value for that purpose has diminished. The county water utility leases part of the land to a cattle rancher now, and it is closed to the public.
County utilities and commerce administrator Mike Merrill said the water department can't simply give the land to ELAPP. Because of obligations to water department bond holders, it is considered an asset of the water utility and must be sold at fair market value, even if another wing of the government is the purchaser, he said.
Voters last year unanimously approved letting the county purchase up to $200 million in land for preservation through ELAPP. Some of that money could go toward the purchase of Cone Ranch should it move up the priority list.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.