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Hillsborough environmental land buy approved, criticized

The $38 million purchase proves wildlife preserve, land for future water plant

TAMPA — Eight years ago, Hillsborough County’s environmental land program identified agricultural property in south county as suitable for preservation. In 2018, the county called it a priority acquisition because it linked two existing nature preserves.

The targeted land is nearly 800 acres in Balm, more than half of which sits between Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve to the north and the Balm Scrub Preserve to the south.

"This is literally the last undeveloped parcel that has the ability to connect these two preserves,'' Forest Turbiville, director of conservation and environmental lands management for the county, told county commissioners Wednesday.

But one commissioner balked at the circumstances of the acquisition through the Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program. The land buy is part of proposed $38 million settlement ending litigation against the county over a disputed rezoning.

"I am concerned that we are creating a bad policy using (the environmental protection program) as a slush fund to deny lawful rezonings,'' said Commissioner Ken Hagan. “I’m not saying there’s not benefits to purchase this land, but I do want my concerns on the record because we have limited resources and, as we all know, we have more lawsuits on the way.”

The lawsuit came form the property owners, Ag-Mart Produce, which last sought to rezone the agricultural land to allow a planned development of 1,599 homes and 53,000-square feet of commercial space in an area outside the county’s urban service area. The commission rejected the land-use change in November by a 6-1 vote with only Hagan dissenting.

The owners had intended the sell the land for development and had received purchase offers, but did not have a sales contract. Ag-Mart’s attorney, Scott McLaren, of the Hill, Ward Henderson law firm, told the Tampa Bay Times.

During the same meeting the commission denied Ag-Mart’s rezoning, it approved a request from Eisenhower Property Group to rezone 591 acres to allow 1,047 homes. But Eisenhower also sued because the rezoning included a provision that the developer couldn’t plat all of its home sites until it demonstrated space for roughly 300 new jobs was available. That suit is pending. Meanwhile, the areas around Balm and Wimauma are now under a county-ordered moratorium on new development until an update to the Wimauma community plan is completed.

Related: Wimauma at epicenter of Hillsborough land dispute

On Wednesday, Hagan’s admonishment didn’t dim the celebratory statements from commissioners and staff members.

"This is our one chance to acquire this ultra-high priority parcel,'' said Commissioner Mariella Smith, who formerly sat on the citizens board that reviewed proposed environmental land sites for the county.

"This appears at this point to be a true win, win, win across the board,'' said Commissioner Kimberly Overman.

"Making lemon-aid out of lemons in a huge way, but it’s way, way, way bigger than that,'' said Commissioner Pat Kemp.

Related: Hillsborough to pay $38 million to buy land in disputed zoning case

Earlier, County Attorney Christine Beck told commissioners the recommended land buy was “not driven by the primary desire to settle a lawsuit. It has been primarily driven by the benefits to the (environmental land program) and to the water resources. The end of the lawsuit is an added benefit.”

Under the terms of the deal, the county will pay $38 million to buy the nearly 800 acres at the intersection of Balm and Balm Riverview roads. The 471 acres west of the intersection are targeted for the environmental preserve, providing a wildlife corridor to connect the more than 8,000 acres of preserve abutting it.

The 330 acres to the east could be used for a drinking water treatment plant and distribution system. The county estimated the location could result in savings of up to $20 million in future construction costs, mostly in the cost of pipes, if the treatment plant is built there instead of on land at the county landfill further to the east.

The commission approved the proposed lawsuit settlement 6-1 over Hagan’s objections.

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