TAMPA — County commissioners agreed Thursday to permanently preserve Cone Ranch, ending months of speculation about the future of a 20-square-mile stretch of undeveloped land in northeastern Hillsborough.
Commissioners voted 6-1 to transfer the property, currently owned by the county's water department, to the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program, or ELAPP. The transfer will happen in the coming months.
"I'm extremely pleased that we are permanently preserving and protecting this land as quickly as possible," said Ken Hagan, the commission chairman.
The transfer would mark the largest acquisition in the history of the more-than-20-year-old conservation program by far. It would expand the program's land holdings by more than a quarter, from the more than 44,000 acres that have been preserved since its inception in 1987.
"I'm ecstatic," said Jan Smith, who heads the citizen advisory panel that recommends lands ELAPP should purchase.
By agreeing to transfer the land, much of it leased to a cattle rancher now and fenced off from the public, commissioners agreed to preserve the property in perpetuity. It will eventually be opened to the public for hiking and other activities, though county Parks, Recreation and Conservation Director Mark Thornton said that could be years off.
With so large an expanse, it will take the county time to develop a management plan that ensures its preservation while allowing the public safe passage. The property is accessed now by lightly maintained dirt roads and sometimes rickety bridges that cross over a series of canals.
"This is like a federal government-sized acquisition," Thornton said.
The decision came after a top county official told commissioners they could make the transfer without ELAPP having to pay full market price for the land. Instead, ELAPP would pay about what the county spent to buy the land more than two decades ago, or about $12 million.
That had been a point of concern in recent months because the land has served as a sort of collateral for the county's water department as it has taken on debt. County Utilities and Commerce Administrator Mike Merrill has argued that, as such, any sale of the property, even to another arm of the government, would have to be for current fair market value — estimated at as much as $50 million.
But Merrill told commissioners he has received tentative word from a company that insures the county's debt that it would not object to a transfer for less than market value.
The future of Cone Ranch has been in dispute for the past several years. First, Commissioner Jim Norman proposed building a large-scale amateur sports complex on part of the land. Then a private group proposed selling off the land to investors, who would agree not to develop it.
Initiatives for developing or selling off all or parts of the land have drawn wide opposition from environmental groups and residents who live near the property. They had increasingly pushed in recent months to have the land transferred to ELAPP to remove the development threat once and for all.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham cast the lone opposing vote, saying he wants to wait until the county receives definitive word from its debt insurer before giving his approval. He said he wants to make sure the transfer doesn't result in county water customers paying higher rates in the future as a result.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.