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Would-be brokers scale back bid to sell publicly owned Cone Ranch to private interests

TAMPA — The private group pitching the sale of publicly owned Cone Ranch is now floating a scaled-down version of its proposal, hoping to keep it alive.

Facing opposition from environmental groups, the corporation calling itself the Florida Conservation & Environmental Group now is suggesting that it be allowed to broker the sale of about a third of the nearly 13,000-acre former ranch.

The Dade City-based corporation says another third could be bought by Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program. The county's Water Resources Services, which owns the whole tract now, could maintain ownership of the rest, it says.

The concept was unveiled Friday at a meeting of an advisory panel convened by county commissioners to review preservation options for Cone Ranch. The panel is expected to start forming a recommendation to commissioners next month.

"We've been attending these meetings," said Beth Leytham, public affairs consultant for the group. "We are studying the issue and continue to do so and want to figure out as well how best to get this done."

Asked whether the concept was an effort to keep her group's initial proposal alive, Leytham said, "Certainly we want to accomplish something. Absolutely."

It did little to appease detractors Friday.

The group of politically connected businessmen unveiled a proposal this spring in which it would broker the sale of one of Hillsborough County's biggest public properties in the name of preservation. Under the initial plan, it proposed subdividing the property into six parcels, then selling them to people who would contractually agree never to develop them.

The investors would get rights to put a building on each parcel and would agree to a so-called conservation easement. The county would profit from the sale in lean times, and the group would make a commission for its role in putting the deals together.

Hillsborough County's water department owns the land now and leases part of it to a rancher. It was initially purchased as a possible water well field, but its potential for that is dim under current environmental laws.

The land is closed to the public, and the group has argued that private owners could be made to restore wetlands damaged by ditching, a task the county's water department hasn't undertaken.

Environmentalists have rallied to thwart the proposal, arguing that Cone Ranch should be kept in public hands to ensure that it is never developed. Last month, an advisory panel to the county's environmental preservation program voted to make purchasing the property a top priority.

Residents who showed up to speak before the Cone Ranch advisory panel, which was formed after the proposal surfaced, spoke uniformly in favor of keeping the land public.

The ranch is in far northeast Hillsborough County, near Plant City. It is part of the Hillsborough River watershed and is considered a piece of a larger wildlife corridor. No appraisals have been done to determine its value and possible sale price.

"If we are to reclaim what's left of Florida's paradise, we need to stop kidding ourselves that private property owners are good custodians of wetlands," said community activist Vivian Bacca. "The size and location of Cone Ranch property makes it vital to protect for the citizens of the future. ELAPP (the county's environmental preservation program) should do it!"

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

Would-be brokers scale back bid to sell publicly owned Cone Ranch to private interests 10/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 12:07am]
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