A citizens panel that recommends lands Hillsborough County should purchase for environmental preservation added two high-profile parcels to its wish list Tuesday.
Cone Ranch in northeast Hillsborough and a portion of the Georgetown Apartment complex fronting Tampa Bay in South Tampa won thumbs up from the committee.
The Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program's site selection team ranked Cone Ranch among its top priorities.
Cone Ranch, nearly 13,000 acres of undeveloped scrub, pine and pastures, is currently owned by the county's water department. But a group of businessmen is floating a proposal to broker its sale to private buyers who would agree to place conservation easements on the land, agreeing to limited development in return for tax breaks.
The site selection team heard from several residents Tuesday who said they don't want that to happen.
"A conservation easement is only a contract that can be broken in the future," said east Hillsborough activist Charlotte Butler-Nelson. "A broken contract would open the door to development interests."
ELAPP has previously considered the property for purchase, but didn't make it priority because the county already owned it. But that changed with the possible sale. This time it got among the highest scores the panel has awarded to possible purchase from the water department.
The more modestly sized 160-acre Georgetown property got a second-tier ranking, though a large number of nearby residents spoke in support of its purchase and preservation.
Developers purchased the 600-unit apartment complex in 2005 with plans to turn it into 1,200 new homes. But the project landed in foreclosure when the real estate market collapsed.
The proposal would be to buy only the waterfront acreage. Several residents spoke of the need for a park in that area.
"Quite honestly, who would have thought we would have had an opportunity like this," said Marlin Anderson, who lives near the boundary of the now boarded up complex. "This is probably a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Georgetown would have ranked higher, but it got a lower score because of the likely cost.
"This will probably be one of the most expensive sites per acreage that we've ever acquired," said Kurt Gremley, the county's ELAPP acquisition manager.
ELAPP was created by voters in 1987 and renewed three years later. It has preserved 44,800 acres. Last year, voters overwhelmingly voted to extend it again to purchase up to $200 million more worth of land.
The site selection team also recommended buying a 12,000-acre parcel next to the existing Little Manatee River Corridor Preserve, and land near the Sydney Dover trail system.
The site selection team's recommendations will go to the county's Parks Advisory Board, which can modify them before forwarding them to the County Commission for approval.