A citizens' panel considering whether Hillsborough County should sell Cone Ranch needs to step back and remember its mandate to protect the water preserve. The County Commission formed the group to vet a proposal by a group of private investors to buy the ranch, which is a major headwater for the Hillsborough River, Tampa's primary drinking water source. But it also gave the committee a larger mandate to find the best way to protect the water preserve for perpetuity.
The Florida Conservation and Environmental Group wants to acquire the 12,800-acre ranch, subdivide it into six, 2,000-acre lots and sell the pieces. The unsold 800 acres would become a public park. Buyers could build a home and caretaker facilities, but conservation easements would bar them from developing the property further. The group said the county would benefit because the private sector — and not taxpayers — would restore and maintain the preserve.
Given the commission's record on environmental stewardship and the politics of selling off a publicly owned preserve, it kicked the proposal to a committee.
To their credit, the panel's chairman and even the investors' group have been careful not to rush a decision. But many members are already focused on selling the property, despite not having addressed the broader charge to find the best way to preserve Cone Ranch.
Three meetings into the issue, the panel still has no idea what the property is worth. It hasn't examined how the government could protect the property. Yet, the panel has already been briefed by its lawyers on how to fast-track a sale. The group has heard from the investors and their biggest commission cheerleader, Ken Hagan, that the land is being mismanaged now. Yet, neither the damage nor the costs have been quantified; nor is there a restoration plan.
The committee has not even challenged the two leading assumptions for going forward with a sale. What extra layer of protection would private owners provide for property that County Administrator Pat Bean already acknowledges is a "conservation area" that "cannot be developed" to any meaningful scale? And all the talk about the county, in this recession, not being able to afford to restore the ranch ignores other factors: Hillsborough has delayed restoration because Tampa Bay Water, the regional supplier, has a right to drill a well there. Nor has the county considered other money-making proposals — from mitigation banking to forestry — that might finance restoration.
The committee needs to remember what is at stake. Cone Ranch, north of Plant City, is vital to the health of the Hillsborough River and residents throughout Tampa Bay Water's three-county service area.
The committee should be exploring issues beyond the sole sales proposal: Is restoration truly cost-prohibitive? What revenue options exist? Should regional governments put something on the table? With so many important questions to resolve, it's jarring that committee member Denise Layne, at a meeting this month, would ask the investors' group, "Is there any 'time is of the essence' issues for you?"
The only essential is that this committee recommend an environmentally sound and politically defensible course. Members should slow down, remember their charge and start asking the larger questions.