TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday unanimously approved a contract to pay $20.1 million for nearly 1,700 acres in the northwestern corner of the county.
In a related vote, commissioners agreed to borrow up to $70 million on the bond market to finance purchases of unspoiled habitat under the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP.
The purchase of 1,673 acres from Kay D. O'Rourke is the first to be made with the bond funds approved Wednesday.
The O'Rourke property, historically used as a cattle ranch, is between Tarpon Springs Road and the Pasco County line.
It is one of three large tracts stretching across northern Hillsborough and Pinellas counties that local officials have purchased in less than two years.
"A very vital piece of the chain," Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean said.
Just west of the O'Rourke property is the 1,047-acre Lake Dan site. Hillsborough paid $17.8 million for that last year. The county plans to spend about $1.8 million more restoring its uplands and adding parking, a playground, a boardwalk, fishing pier and observation deck for bird watching.
Farther west still, just across the county line into Pinellas, are 871 acres formerly known as the Eldridge-Wilde well field. Pinellas County purchased that tract in late 2008.
Hillsborough officials have worked on buying the O'Rourke property for nearly a decade. Three appraisals put the value of the land between $12,068 and $13,000 an acre. A fourth said the land was worth $8,300 an acre.
Commissioners agreed to pay $12,039 an acre. That, officials said, is 29 percent less per acre than what they paid for the neighboring Lake Dan property in 2008.
The county hopes to offset some of the price by asking the Southwest Florida Water Management District for matching funds.
Counting the O'Rourke property, the three purchases have secured nearly 3,600 acres for environmental preservation since the spring of 2008.
By comparison, the entire Brooker Creek Preserve in northern Pinellas covers about 8,700 acres.
All of the properties, though, "will essentially be managed as one single preserve, just by two different entities," said Forest Turbiville, Hillsborough's section manager for regional parks and conservation services.
"Our goals are the same," Turbiville said. "Both counties have a land management team that does prescribed burns, exotic plant control and endangered species evaluations. We're very much on the same page with Pinellas County when it comes to land management and restoration at the Brooker Creek Preserve."
Hillsborough officials plan to lease the O'Rourke property to a rancher for three to five years while they work on a plan for the land and find the money to pay for any improvements. In the meantime, hikers and horseback riders will be able to explore the tract.
With Wednesday's deal, Hillsborough officials said it becomes more feasible to create a wildlife or recreational corridor connecting the O'Rourke property to the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco County.
"We have looked into it," said Ron Daniel, Pasco County's environmental lands program coordinator. "We do not have any landowners who are committed at this point."
Still, Daniel said, "a lot of this is opportunity-driven, and we don't know what the opportunities are going to be out in this particular area now that Hillsborough has been successful" in buying the O'Rourke property.
The O'Rourke purchase was possible because last year nearly 79 percent of Hillsborough voters agreed to continue collecting a small tax earmarked for environmental preservation.
The November 2008 referendum renewed ELAPP for 30 years and authorized the county to borrow up to $200 million on the bond market to acquire and preserve environmentally important land.
The new bonds are expected to pay for an estimated $55 million to $65 million worth of preservation projects.
Repaying the debt is not expected to increase the ELAPP property tax rate, which is about 6 cents per $1,000 of taxable value. That's about $9 a year for a homeowner whose tax assessment is $150,000 after homestead exemptions.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.