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Hillsborough buys 543 acres in Keystone for $11.6 million

The addition to the Brooker Creek Buffer Preserve is part of a plan to link 10,000 acres of environmental land

KEYSTONE — It’s a part of Hillsborough County where pasture land, equestrian lifestyles and “wildlife crossing’’ signs coexist amid winding roads wrapping around neighborhoods filled with lakefront McMansions.

Hillsborough commissioners recently moved to save a little bit more of the rural flavor of the northwest portion of the county by making a little bit less of the open land in the Keystone and Odessa area available for potential development.

With no public comment, county commissioners on April 15 approved contracts to acquire two sites totaling 543 acres for $11.6 million under the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, known by the acronym ELAPP.

The land is located between Boy Scout and Patterson roads, east of the Booker Creek Buffer Preserve in an area designated in 2019 as a top priority for acquisition under the land-buying program. The two parcels are part of a desired 928-acre addition to the Brooker Creek Buffer Preserve that, if completed, would link 10,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land.

Most of the uplands areas have been cleared for agricultural use, and one of the approved acquisitions involves 293 acres owned by Cee Bee Groves Inc. The family-owned farm operated the last commercial orange grove in Hillsborough County until it announced its closing two years ago. The grove’s owners were the subject of a 2018 Tampa Bay Times story on the declining citrus industry.

Related: Time runs out for last grove

That sale includes a $5 million purchase price and the county budgeted $950,000 to restore 159 acres of disturbed uplands and to take down buildings on the site. The citrus grove had featured a 6,000-square-foot packing house and a retail store, according to the property’s for-sale listing.

It abuts the site of the second purchase, 250 acres of pasture and wetlands fronting on Patterson Road. It is owned by a limited liability partnership, Double Screen Associates. The $6.6 million sale price is above the average of two appraisals, which valued the land at at $6.2 million and $6.785 million. Both county staff and commissioners said the property’s environmental importance was worth the expense.

"I have every confidence this is a fair deal for county taxpayers,'' Commissioner Mariella Smith said in an interview prior to the commission’s unanimous vote.

The county also set aside $1.3 million for restoring 194 upland acres and demolishing buildings, a price that could drop if the county is able to use the land for environmental mitigation tied to public construction projects.

Staff memos describe both parcels as "one of the last large undeveloped tracts in this portion of the county.''

Smith, who formerly sat on the citizens committee overseeing the environmental program, said the two purchases had been ranked as “essential” and “our very top priority for acquisition.”

"You can look at them and see why. One of the main priorities of ELAPP is to connect wildlife habitat into corridor. So that you have really viable large, decent-sized habitat, not just isolated pockets,'' she said.

The property tax-financed environmental preservation program began in 1987 and twice has been extended by voter-approved bond referendums. The county manages more than 63,000 acres of environmentally sensitive wildlife habitat and corridors acquired through the program.