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Pinellas commissioners split over Cross Bar Ranch sale

Pasco County's bid to buy back over 12,000 acres of undeveloped land met with a mixed reaction from Pinellas commissioners Tuesday, half of whom said they weren't prepared to sell.

The land, known as the Cross Bar Ranch, is in central Pasco but was bought by Pinellas County in the mid-1970s in the midst of heavy competition for water sources. Untouched by development and mainly used for agricultural purposes, it hosts 17 wellheads, now owned by Tampa Bay Water, which supply Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey with 14 million to 16 million gallons of water a day.

More than 30 years after the land was sold, Pasco commissioners are making a second bid to buy back the land using money from the Penny for Pasco tax. Their intention, they say, is to build a series of trails linking the Cross Bar to other environmental preserves. They also want to eliminate the possibility of Pinellas one day deciding to sell it to developers.

At a meeting Tuesday, Pinellas commissioners were split on whether to sell. Three of the seven commissioners — Karen Seel, Janet Long and Norm Roche — said they did not want Pinellas to relinquish ownership of a major source of drinking water.

"The No. 1 issue if you pick up any magazine, the Economist, Newsweek, Time magazine, (it) is going to be water. And that is why we need to keep this land just out of abundance of caution," Seel said.

To assuage Pasco's fears of development, Seel proposed granting Pasco the first right to buy the land if Pinellas ever does sell.

"I have a different perspective," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who has been the main proponent of selling, a step she said would dissolve some of the bad blood between the two counties over the decades-old sale.

"Several of you have referred to water being the biggest issue. Yeah, it is. And Tampa Bay Water solved that," she said. Arguments that the regional water utility could fall apart are "such a far-fetched stretch."

Florida is trying to cut down on pumping ground water, Latvala added. If Tampa Bay Water ever disbanded and Pinellas was left to fend for itself, it's unlikely the county would win the state's approval to pump more water out of the Cross Bar Ranch.

Agreeing with Latvala, Commissioner Ken Welch said the ranch had served its purpose. "This really is a home rule issue to me," he said. "If another county owned a chunk of land in Pinellas County, I think we'd be trying to acquire it as well."

Sandwiched in the middle of a divided board, Commissioner Charlie Justice said he needed more information about the ranch before making up his mind. Commissioner John Morroni did not attend Tuesday's meeting.