TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials are exploring two options they hope will allow them to preserve a 20-square-mile swath of property without breaking their land-buying bank.
Both ideas involve the county seeking permission to transfer ownership of the land known as Cone Ranch from one part of county government to another. The goal: getting consent to do so without having the one arm of government pay the other full market price for the land.
"These are two options we like a lot and they are the cheapest and easiest to do," said Mike Merrill, the county's utilities and commerce administrator. "They get us to the place where everybody wants to be, without having to do an appraisal and paying less for the property — which are all good things."
Hillsborough commissioners, who voted last month to have the county set aside the land through the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program, welcome the possibility. They have feared having to pay full price for the ranch, which would sharply deplete money they have set aside for land preservation.
"Our goal should be to have ELAPP acquire the land as quickly and inexpensively as possible," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who has been at the center of discussions over the future of the property. "In addition to Cone Ranch, we have a number of environmentally important areas we want to acquire. We certainly don't want all of our ELAPP dollars to go to one property."
The commission voted to transfer Cone Ranch to ELAPP in December following months of discussions. They were prompted when a local business group proposed letting it sell off the land, on behalf of the county, to private investors.
Florida Conservation & Environmental Group had pitched the idea as a creative means of preservation. They proposed subdividing the land in northeastern Hillsborough into six 2,000-acre parcels and selling them to investors who would promise never to develop them beyond erecting a single building.
It would have been a way of permanently preserving the land that wasn't open to the public anyway and letting the county make some money in the process, the group said. The county has owned the land since 1988, initially planning to install drinking water well fields that no longer appear viable.
Environmental groups fought the idea of selling the public land, which is dotted with wetlands and serves as part of a larger wildlife corridor, and FCEG ultimately withdrew its request. But the discussion stoked renewed interest from environmentalists and neighbors to ensure it is permanently preserved and at least partly open to the public.
Commissioners agreed the best way to do that was to have the property transferred to ELAPP, the county's preservation program for environmentally sensitive lands. County voters agreed just last year to extend ELAPP, authorizing up to $200 million in new land purchases.
But what seems like a simple proposition — transferring the land to ELAPP — isn't, Merrill says.
Cone Ranch is officially listed as an asset of the county's water utility. The utility has taken on debt and the ranch is considered part of its collateral. To get rid of it, Merrill says it must be sold for fair market value as determined by an appraisal.
FCEG had estimated that a sale could fetch close to $50 million. That would be a big hit to ELAPP so shortly after voters extended the program.
Some activists have disputed Merrill's assertion that the water department must get fair market value for the land, but outside legal opinions back him up.
Merrill is floating two possibilities to remedy the situation. The first would be to seek permission from the company that insures the county's bonded debt to transfer the property to ELAPP. Merrill said he considers that somewhat of a long shot.
If the insurer agrees, however, ELAPP likely would still have to pay book value for the property, or about $12 million. That's close to what the county initially paid for it and a much more palatable price tag to commissioners.
The county's water utility debt is scheduled to be paid off in 2015. But the utility is preparing to take on new debt to pay for pipes and treatment facilities. With that in mind, Merrill is suggesting another, more likely possibility.
When the county sells the new bonds, it would state to investors that Cone Ranch will no longer be considered an asset of the utility after 2015. As long as the disclosure is made up front, it shouldn't be a problem, Merrill said.
"We're pretty well certain that that's going to work," Merrill said.
He said that the county could likely devise a way to open at least some of the property to the public in the meantime. And he said the strategy would give the county time to devise a plan to manage the land, which has been badly damaged by man-made canals and cattle ranching.
Merrill will discuss those possibilities with a citizen advisory panel for ELAPP today, and later this month with commissioners.
Kent Bailey, a woodworker who lives near Cone Ranch, said he has watched the county fail to preserve the property ever since it was purchased in 1988. He has followed the well-field proposals and a more recent plan to turn part of the land into an amateur sports complex.
He said wants to see a quick transfer so it is finally protected from development and opened to the public and will oppose any plan that falls short of that.
"I'm skeptical," Bailey said. "I've fought this battle before. I would assert that my skepticism is well founded."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.