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Pasco seeks to buy back Cross Bar Ranch from Pinellas, bought during water wars

Published Aug. 5, 2013

More than 30 years after Pinellas County purchased thousands of acres of orange groves and cattle pasture in Pasco County, commissioners there would like to buy it back.

The 12,400 acres in question, known as the Cross Bar Ranch, sit in the heart of central Pasco, east of U.S. 41 and north of State Road 52. Oranges no longer grow there; but the land produces something far more valuable: water.

In the midst of heavy competition for water sources in the 1970s, a period known as the water wars, Pinellas bought the land and installed 17 wellheads. Now owned by Tampa Bay Water, they supply Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey with 14 million to 16 million gallons of water a day. Except for the 17 acres surrounding the wellheads, the land belongs to Pinellas, which uses it mainly for agriculture.

It's a functional arrangement, said Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader, but he and others say there's little logic in it.

The Cross Bar Ranch is 60 miles from Clearwater, the seat of Pinellas government, and so far from Pinellas public schools that only Pasco students use its outdoor educational programs. The land, now covered in pine forests and with some remaining cattle pasture, is pristine, Schrader said, but there's still the threat of a future Pinellas Commission deciding, one day, to sell it to developers.

If Pasco owned it, the county could both protect it from bulldozers and fully open it to the public, he said. "We have visions of completing a trail system," he said, that would connect Cross Bar to other open land. "It would give us the opportunity to open it up for better access to the public, expand on our tourism. There may be equestrian events we could hold out there."

An attempt to have the state buy the land through the Florida Forever Fund failed in 2008 after the economic downturn.

Pinellas has not named its price — commissioners will meet Aug. 13 to discuss the proposal — and not everyone is keen on selling.

According to Pasco's property appraiser, the land's just value is $57 million, but its market value could be considerably higher. Schrader said the county has set aside roughly $40 million to buy the property.

"If you sold today, you'd be selling it in a down market," said Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala. "They don't manufacture more land, so if you don't have a compelling need to sell … then like any other appreciating asset, you evaluate your holding."

Pinellas has no plans to develop the land, he said.

The ranch has only recently become profitable. A 2012 audit found that revenue from the sale of pine straw and other activities fell about $1 million short of covering the ranch's costs. But in the last two years, as pine forests have reached maturity, the county has been able to turn a profit by selling timber.

Schrader said he's talked with four of the seven Pinellas commissioners; some seemed intrigued, and none gave him a flat no. At least one, Commissioner Susan Latvala, is enthusiastic about the idea.

Pinellas' purchase of the Cross Bar Ranch, followed by adjacent land known as the Al Bar in 1990, left some Pasco officials and residents deeply resentful. Selling the land would bring closure to the water wars, Latvala said.

"There's a political reason (to sell) that I think is important," Latvala said. "It closes the loop, the hard feelings that Pinellas County caused when we bought the land and started pumping."

If Pinellas and Pasco are able to hammer out a deal, it would likely include language clearing the land of any development rights. Now, Schrader said, the ranch is zoned such that it could be divided into 10-acre residential plots.

"The potential or threat of development remains," he said. "This is really the only way to clearly protect the property for generations to come."

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

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