Cone Ranch security
December 27, 2009
Regarding "Water department denies access to Cone Ranch," (The Tampa Tribune, Dec. 15): Recently, Hillsborough County Water Resource Services (WRS) was contacted by a Pinellas County resident who wanted permission for a group to conduct a birding study at Cone Ranch. We would like the opportunity to provide several pieces of key information that were missing from the article.
WRS declined the request because of a lack of staff to escort the visitors and associated liability issues. This answer was no different than that given to others who have made requests to visit the property for a wide range of purposes.
The property is more than 12,000 acres and has a number of hazards, including wild boar. Regardless of whether the birding group offered to sign a waiver of liability, the conditions are simply not safe enough to allow unrestricted, unescorted access. In addition, persons unfamiliar with the terrain could interfere with a leased operation that has 2,000 head of cattle roaming much of the property.
Hillsborough County purchased Cone Ranch in 1988 as a potential wellfield for future generations. WRS' ability to undertake certain projects, such as wetlands restoration, is limited because of the conditions of utility bond financing. However, Hillsborough County and Water Resource Services have indeed been good stewards of the property. For example:
• When the land was purchased, the administrator at the time designated the county's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department as the principal land manager.
• The county developed an extensive land management plan more than a decade ago.
• WRS has worked with Parks, Recreation and Conservation on several initiatives to manage and maintain the property.
• An area was set aside for habitat for gopher tortoises removed from the construction site of a new high school.
• Round-the-clock security deters trespassers, illegal dumping and poachers.
Hillsborough County government formed an advisory panel in May to make recommendations on the future of Cone Ranch. This has been an open, transparent process that included public participation, open meetings and a comprehensive collection of documents and records related to the property. On Dec. 16, county commissioners accepted the recommendation of this advisory panel to begin the process of moving control of Cone Ranch to the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program .
For more information, please visit www.hillsboroughcounty.org, and click on the link to the "Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Committee" on the bottom of the page.
PAUL J. VANDERPLOOG
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