CLEARWATER — The 12,400 acres Pinellas County owns in Pasco are not for sale.
Not for any amount of money and not under any conditions. By the end of the Pinellas County Commission's meeting on Tuesday, it was clear that Pasco County, the eager buyer, would be going home empty handed, its bid to acquire the land discarded before anyone could determine the land's worth.
Known as the Cross Bar Ranch, the land that Pinellas bought from Pasco in the mid-1970s is host to 17 wellheads owned by Tampa Bay Water. They pump millions of gallons of water out of the aquifer daily, supplying Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.
Decades after selling the land, Pasco officials approached Pinellas last year with the offer to buy it back. Their intention, they said, was to build a series of trails linking the Cross Bar to other environmentally protected lands and to eliminate the possibility that Pinellas would one day sell the land to developers.
On Tuesday, four of the Pinellas commission's seven members said that under no circumstances would they sell the land. Looking decades into the future, they envisioned a day in which regional cooperation had given way to chaos, forcing Pinellas to find its own water source. If they parted with the land, they said, there would be no fallback option.
"We just have to be conservative in this and not sell an asset that we might never know someday why we might need," said Commissioner Karen Seel.
Look at what's happening in California, she said, pointing to a state that's drought-stricken and draws much of its water from outside its borders. The Pinellas-owned property adjacent to the Cross Bar Ranch, called Al Bar, currently lacks wellfields, but the county could build them if it grew desperate, she said.
Commissioners Susan Latvala and Ken Welch, who have been the strongest advocates on the board for selling the land, argued on Tuesday that the property is no longer of any real use to Pinellas. Much of the land is used for agriculture and a pine straw business that's just beginning to turn a profit.
If it were sold, they said, Pinellas could divert money spent managing the property to environmental lands within its borders, such as Booker Creek. Proceeds from a sale could also be used to keep residents' water bills from increasing, or to pay for $30 million worth of water system projects, some of which have been postponed due to funding shortfalls.
"I cannot justify in any way that we should keep a piece of land in perpetuity which costs us money and our citizens have no access to," Latvala said, calling the board's decision not to sell "unbelievable."
Commissioner Charlie Justice said he was interested in selling the land, but only for the right price. He suggested that Pasco pay for an appraisal.
Ultimately, commissioners agreed only to look into ways of increasing the public's access to the property, which is mainly visited by Pasco students.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.