CLEARWATER — Pinellas commissioners who oppose the sale of water-bearing land in Pasco County are taking their case to the public.
Commissioners Norm Roche and John Morroni held a news conference on Tuesday urging residents to flood their colleagues with a message: Keep the Cross Bar Ranch as a potential water source for future generations.
"A self-sufficient and self-reliant source of fresh, clean drinking water is the very lifeblood of Pinellas County or for any community, for that matter," Roche said as he stood behind a lectern on the courthouse steps. "Stand up now and help us protect our county's future and our county's independence."
Roche and Morroni, both of whom are up for re-election this year, also called Tuesday for a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to amend the county charter to forbid the commission from selling the land. Roche said Chairwoman Karen Seel could not attend due to a scheduling conflict.
The call to action comes less than a week after four of the seven members commissioners — Susan Latvala, Charlie Justice, Janet Long and Ken Welch — reached a consensus to invite Pasco County to get an appraisal for the 12,400 acres that comprise Cross Bar Ranch and an adjacent parcel known as Al Bar Ranch. Cross Bar is host to 17 wellheads owned by Tampa Bay Water that pump millions of gallons of water out of the aquifer daily, supplying Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.
Long's support marked a turnaround of sorts. In February, she joined Roche, Morroni and Seel in a vote to keep the properties after Pasco officials offered to buy them back.
Pinellas commissioners see the wells as a fallback option if the current interlocal agreement with Tampa Bay Water disintegrated and the county is forced to find its own water sources. During a budget workshop last week, Latvala again broached the issue of selling as a way to pay for millions worth of capital needs. Long said she is now open to getting an appraisal so she can make an informed decision about whether to sell.
Latvala called the chance of Tampa Bay Water breaking up "very close to zero."
The wells wouldn't put more than a dent in Pinellas County's roughly 50 million gallons a day demand. The wells were permitted to pump 30 millions a day when Tampa Bay Water was formed, but it's unlikely the Southwest Florida Water Management District would allow that much pumping.
"This land has no value to the citizens of Pinellas County and would do a lot to keep their taxes low," Latvala said.