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Go slow on Two Rivers deal

The offer for Hillsborough County to buy development rights to Two Rivers Ranch is enticing but fraught with problems.

No one can question the public benefit to preserving 14,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land within the Hillsborough River Basin, the primary source of Tampa's drinking water supply. Environmentalists, state legislators and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, understand the physical and economic value that the ranch's two rivers, the Hillsborough and Blackwater Creek, and its more than 100 rare species, including the bald eagle and the eastern indigo snake, bring to the region. They also understand the irreversible damage commercial development would cause.

All this makes walking away from an imperfect deal difficult to swallow. But government has more deserving land to preserve than it can afford to purchase. In choosing priorities, details become critical. And the Two Rivers proposal, as it stands, is not the best bargain for the dollar.

Under the deal, Hillsborough would pay $6-million to the Bob Thomas family, which owns the ranch, for 9,300-acres, the portion located within Hillsborough. One-fifth of the property, or 1,800 acres, would be purchased outright. The remaining 7,500 acres would be kept by the Thomas family, but off-limits to development. Environmental buying programs in Florida have only recently begun purchasing development rights as an alternative to buying property. It can sometimes achieve the same public purpose at a cheaper cost.

Hillsborough has never used the tool of development rights, and the Two Rivers proposal is the wrong place to start. For one thing, it is unclear exactly what Hillsborough taxpayers would be buying. The Thomas family could continue using the ranch as they have for years. Among the unsettled questions: ranch management, public access to the property, the final purchase cost.

The arrangement is messy. Swiftmud, not Hillsborough County, would oversee the property and handle the ongoing relationship with the Thomases. That diffuses accountability. Also, the purchase could significantly reduce the taxable value of Two Rivers, thus inflating the long-term costs to government in other ways.

The plan still could be salvaged. Development rights, with the right guarantees, could become an efficient way for government to preserve land that is environmentally significant. Hillsborough commissioners, who take up the matter Wednesday, need more answers before voting yes or no.

Commissioners, however, should be guarded about supporting a costly agreement whose details are unknown or shifting, and largely outside their hands. There is no rush. The public deserves to know whether Two Rivers is even suited to development, and, if so, how Swiftmud and the Thomases arrived at the asking price. Hillsborough commissioners are being asked to set a precedent. They should not unwittingly undermine the worthy goal of environmental protection by inviting property owners to move forward with flawed deals.