A Floral City agricultural company has purchased nearly 3,600 acres in central Pasco that a citizens group had recommended for environmental preservation.
The newly formed Palmetto Ridge Cattle Co. purchased the 3,567 acres north of State Road 52 and east of Ehren Cutoff for $18.67 million in a deal that closed Sept. 13.
Previous owners had designated the property as the Pruitt Ranch, Secret Promises and Fort King Ranch.
The land will remain a cattle ranch, said James P. Fenton, the head of Palmetto Ridge Cattle Co. and several other agricultural interests involved in citrus, berry, pine and cattle operations in Citrus County.
"We bought the ranch to run cattle on and will continue to do so,'' Fenton said in a text message. "We had sold our ranch, so we needed to find a new place to run out cattle. Simple as that.''
The sellers were heirs of the late St. Petersburg heart surgeon Dr. J. Clayton Pruitt, who acquired the land in 1997 and made it the home of the Florida Estates Winery.
In 2017, a Pasco citizens advisory committee recommended adding the land to the county’s Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program list as an agricultural reserve. The Southwest Florida Water Management District previously had identified the land as worthy of preservation because of its proximity to well fields and because the land includes streams, reservoirs, marshes, wet prairies and wetland forests. About half of the land is pasture.
Pasco County Commissioners balked, however, at even adding the land to its acquisition list as a precursor to negotiations, saying the size and cost could exhaust the environmental program’s treasury funded by the Penny for Pasco sales tax.
"I am sorry that that happened,'' said Mac Davis, a member of the environmental lands advisory committee. "I don’t understand that reasoning.''
The Pruitt property, known then as Secret Promise, carried significant value, Davis said, because of its size and close proximity to other preserved land, even though it was outside the designated wildlife corridor the county is attempting to assemble.
“To me, that was the most attractive thing, because size is the multiplier of value when it comes to environmental land,” he said. "The larger the piece, the more intrinsic value and the more capability to expand in an environmentally desirable way.''
The land carries a planned-unit development designation, allowing nearly 1,300 homes and 100,000 square feet of non-residential development on about 1,500 acres.
The land used to be part of the massive Fort King Ranch that totaled 5,500 acres and was owned by Freeman Polk. He tried unsuccessfully to auction the property in 1990 and advertised it in the Wall Street Journal to spur national interest. He ended up rejecting the high bid of $7.2 million and eventually liquidated his holdings as part of a bankruptcy proceeding.
Pruitt purchased 18 parcels totaling 3,586 acres for $3.1 million. The rest of the former Fort King Ranch is now the 2,000-acre 4-G Ranch, just west of the Palmetto Ridge Cattle Co. land.