If there is a good reason for Hillsborough County to sell its Cone Ranch water preserve to a group of politically connected businessmen, it has not surfaced in the brief time since this fishy proposal emerged from the shadows. The private group says the deal would enable the county to reap millions in this recession and preserve Cone Ranch and other sensitive lands. But the deal could do the opposite. The secretive nature of the proposal, and its sponsor, commission Chairman Ken Hagan, certainly do not inspire much confidence.
Hillsborough acquired the ranch, in the county's northeast area, two decades ago under a regional effort to lay claim to new well fields. Tampa Bay Water, the region's water supplier, still holds water rights to the property, but those plans are shelved for now as the region looks to move away from pumping and toward more sustainable water resources.
The Florida Conservation and Environmental Group, whose partners include prominent Republican donors, wants to acquire the 12,800-acre ranch. Then they would divide it into six 2,000-acre lots and sell the pieces. Buyers would be allowed to build a caretaker and "related" facilities on each lot but not engage in residential or commercial development. The private group says the county would benefit several ways. It would make $35-million. A conservation easement would bar development forever. And the remaining unsold 800 acres could be converted into a public park.
Aside from the fundamental questions — who are these people, where did this idea come from? — the very premise of selling Cone Ranch for the stated purpose of conservation makes no sense. The county owns the property now. It could restore the natural water flow, protect the natural habit, bar future development and preserve the area as a recharge source for the region's water supplies.
The private group maintains the county has not managed the ranch properly, but it did not offer specifics about what needs to be done or what it would cost. Neither the group, nor the county, is even clear about what uses would be permitted. Buyers could hunt, fish and be allowed "low intensity" water uses. An earlier version of the proposal called for allowing agriculture, livestock and "limited mining" operations, but those allegedly are off the table.
The group confirmed, in response to a question from the Times, that it might seek to use the land for a mitigation bank. Under that process, developers could buy credits for wetlands at Cone Ranch to compensate for spoiling wetlands in other areas. If the purpose here is mitigation banking, why does the county need to create a middleman? If the purpose is restoration, what impact would dividing the ranch and installing fencing, roads and other facilities have on water quality and the wildlife corridor? Keeping the ranch in one piece and under single ownership and management seems to be the way of ensuring that restoration gets started and stays on track.
How does this group manage to swing making an offer for Cone Ranch when no other buyer — public or private — had the same chance through a competitive bid? The county seeks bids on everything from playground equipment to yard work and gearboxes. Yet commissioners agreed at the same meeting where the proposal was unveiled to create a committee to study the idea and make a recommendation.
The commission has a history of weakening wetlands protections, appeasing developers and not responding to public criticism. As hard as Hagan tried to paint himself as noncommittal on the deal, he couldn't help throw a grenade at "naysayers" and environmental "extremists." Commissioner Jim Norman asked if the proceeds from selling Cone Ranch could be used to lower water rates. It is hard to see what the county would gain, and it doesn't help that the would-be buyers overstated the support that the Nature Conservancy has given the deal. Commissioners need to be cautious. Cone Ranch exists as security for the region's future water needs, not as a quick fix to plug the county budget.