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Hillsborough County to explore sale of 12,000 acres

One of several creeks on Cone Ranch, which covers nearly 20 square miles of undeveloped land in northeast Hillsborough.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

One of several creeks on Cone Ranch, which covers nearly 20 square miles of undeveloped land in northeast Hillsborough.

TAMPA — A panel of environmental leaders will help Hillsborough County commissioners scrutinize a proposal to sell nearly 13,000 acres of public land in the name of preservation.

Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to consider a proposal to sell Cone Ranch — nearly 20 square miles of undeveloped land in northeast Hillsborough.

The county's Water Department owns the land, which was bought two decades ago as a possible water source.

A group of businessmen is proposing to divide the land into six 2,000-acre parcels and sell them to people who would agree never to develop. They say the land would be preserved forever with conservation easements the new owners would have to grant to the county.

And the county would pocket an estimated $35 million to $45 million from the sale.

The St. Petersburg Times first reported the proposal, nearly two years in the making, on April 26. It has since been met by environmentalists with a mixture of skepticism and a willingness to hear more.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who pitched the idea Wednesday, said he in no way is promising to support it. The vote only enables the county staff to analyze the proposal from the Florida Conservation & Environmental Group.

With money for preserving natural Florida drying up, Hagan said a proposal he initially thought preposterous is worth a look. The property, while government-owned, is not open to the public now, he noted. The county leases much of the property to a cattle rancher.

As proposed, about 800 acres would be kept in county hands and could become a passive park.

"I think it's incumbent upon us to look for creative ways to stretch our dollars," Hagan said. "What I am saying is preserving Cone Ranch is so critical that the proposal deserves review."

He has asked board members to appoint one person each to a group that will study the proposal as it is fine-tuned. Hagan initially said he would prefer that the panel consist of environmental leaders, but Commissioner Jim Norman said appointing people with other expertise should be an option.

Most of the commissioners voiced a willingness to at least study the idea.

"Just because something is a business concept doesn't mean it crumbles the environment," Commissioner Rose Ferlita said.

Cone Ranch has been used for cattle farming for decades. It is scarred by a series of canals that drain the property and prevent upstream flooding.

Wildlife including gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, and bald eagles patrol there, but many of the 600 wetlands on property are ailing because the canals have altered water flow. The county has no current plans to restore the land.

Florida Conservation & Environmental Group's Ken Jones said the new owners would have to agree to a management plan that would include restoring some of the natural terrain.

"We think this is a great outside-the-box idea to do a public-private partnership to protect a great piece of Hillsborough County," he said.

Under the proposal, the group would help line up buyers and craft the conservation easement, taking a still-undetermined cut of the sales price. Buyers would be able to build a residence or other caretaker building and get substantial tax breaks for agreeing to the conservation easement.

As news of their proposal has spread, some environmentalists have questioned why the county would divest public land. They have also questioned how the county can be sure that future owners of the property won't seek to undo the easements.

Hagan said he wants to see iron-clad language that convinces him that won't happen.

"Permanently means forever," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

FAST FACTS

Who is FCEG?

Florida Conservation & Environmental Group's principals include Rick Michaels, a prominent national Republican fundraiser who is founder of Communications Equity Associates, a company that works with buyers and sellers in media transactions; Ken Jones, CEA's senior vice president and general counsel who previously worked for former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott; and local businessman Dick Mandt, another active Republican donor.

Hillsborough County to explore sale of 12,000 acres 05/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 12:11am]
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