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Thousands of acres in Pasco may be purchased from Pinellas for preservation

More than two years ago, the effort to protect 12,500 acres in central Pasco County got a big boost when state officials added the property to Florida's priority list for preservation.

But the money to buy the land from Pinellas County never rolled in.

Now officials are trying again.

Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher met recently with Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala and state legislators Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The upshot of the meeting: Pinellas County will put up some asking prices — and Pasco and state officials will decide whether the purchase is worth pursuing with a possible combination of county sales tax revenue, state trust fund dollars and water district acquisition funds.

"The ball's in Pinellas County's court," said Commissioner Ted Schrader.

Neither county has done a private appraisal of the land. When the land was added to the preservation list in 2008, it was valued at $176 million for property tax purposes.

"The important thing here is that we don't want to pay for something that's overpriced," said Fasano. "Early on, some numbers were thrown out that were extremely high that I would not support."

LaSala said he has told his executive staff to begin coming up with options and values for the land. Once that's done, he'll seek input from Gallagher and Pinellas County commissioners about whether to keep proceeding.

If so, that's when a formal appraisal will be done, LaSala said.

"We're not talking about a lease or a gift," LaSala said.

Pinellas began buying the Pasco land in the 1970s, when area governments fought "water wars" to control the drinking water supply. When the water disputes ended, Pinellas no longer needed the land.

The Cross Bar portion of the property — about 8,000 acres — is home to 17 wellhead sites now owned by the Tampa Bay Water Authority. Pinellas acquired the Al Bar Ranch portion of the property later to help buffer the well field area.

LaSala said any deal would not change Tampa Bay Water's authority over drinking water there.

The land is home to endangered and threatened wildlife, including Florida scrub jays, and officials say they want the public to be able to access the land and see a piece of old Florida.

"It's a very important property," said Weatherford. "What we're trying to do is try to put it in the proper hands for preservation."

He added that the funding delay may have a benefit in the end.

"It's a good thing we didn't pay for it back in 2006 or 2007," he said, "because we would have overpaid."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Thousands of acres in Pasco may be purchased from Pinellas for preservation 09/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 17, 2010 9:10pm]
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