A preservation victory, for now

Published Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Cone Ranch deal looks all but dead. A private investors' group that wanted to buy the Hillsborough County-owned preserve put the idea on hold last week, pending talks between Tampa and the county over consolidating water departments — a move that is not going to happen any time soon. The retreat was appropriate and a gracious way for the investors' group to walk away from a proposal that put serious pressure on the elected commissioners in the run-up to next year's elections. Keeping Cone Ranch public is a victory. But preserving it is the broader goal.

The Florida Conservation and Environmental Group wanted to acquire the 12,800-acre ranch, subdivide it into six, 2,000-acre lots and sell the pieces. Buyers would have been restricted by conservation easements from developing the property. The unsold 800 acres would have been turned into a public park. Supporters said the deal would have allowed good stewards to enjoy reasonable use of the ranch in northeast Hillsborough, while generating money for the county to preserve the property, a major headwater for the Hillsborough River, Tampa's primary drinking water source.

Why the investors wanted the ranch was never clear. But the bigger worry was the county's lack of urgency and diligence in vetting a proposed purchase of a conservation area. A committee the commission established to review the deal never finished. The staff never answered basic questions, such as what the ranch was worth, how much it would cost to preserve it and how the land should be managed. And the county never sought feedback from other players in the region about the sale of a tract that plays such a pivotal role in providing Tampa Bay with drinking water.

While Florida Conservation may have walked away — it could not drum up support for even a scaled-down purchase — the county still needs a blueprint for preserving the ranch. The commission should disband the Cone Ranch committee. County staff members are more likely to do the serious homework such as valuing the ranch and crafting a management plan if they answer directly to commissioners. Officials also need to remove the water department as ranch steward; that agency shows no grasp of the need to protect an environmental asset. And the county needs to reassess the wisdom in allowing a public park at the ranch. That conflicts with the work of recharging a conservation area.

The Florida Conservation group, to its credit, never pushed the county for a quick decision. By standing down, the company has given the county time to resolve a series of questions that need to be answered regardless of whether privatization is on the table.