Don't close gate on Cone Ranch venture
Novebmer 2, 2009
If we had our way, Hillsborough County would restore Cone Ranch, transforming ditches and pastures into creeks and wetlands, and open it to the public as a wilderness park.
But that's probably not going to happen - at least not anytime soon. There are no funds for the necessary work.
And it doesn't appear the county utilities department, which originally acquired the land for a drinking water wellfield, can simply turn Cone Ranch over to the parks department. The utilities agency is obligated to sell the land at market value to minimize impacts on ratepayers, who fund its operations.
So the 13,000-acre ranch will remain closed to the public.
Given this reality, conservationists might not want to be so quick to dismiss a proposal by private investors to buy the land. The proposal is evolving and apparently is becoming a better deal for the public.
The investors promise to keep the tract natural and to open a county park. More importantly, they offer to return the land, which was ditched and diked to create pastures, to its natural state.
The Florida Conservation & Environmental Group originally proposed to purchase almost the entire ranch and market six 2,000-acre estates, where development would be limited to a few structures.
The Hillsborough County Commission established a citizens' advisory committee to review the idea, and citizens have been vocal in opposition to the deal.
So now the corporation is offering a revised proposal. The company would buy a portion of the property for its venture. The utilities department would retain ownership of some, and a parcel would be bought by the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program and opened as a wilderness park.
Investors say they still would restore the entire tract. They are offering to pay for a comprehensive assessment of the land.
Obviously, the group believes it can profit from marketing wooded estates to the wealthy, even if the venture is smaller than originally planned.
Wholesale development of land near the headwaters of the Hillsborough River should be unthinkable.
But if the group keeps its promise to minimize construction while restoring the ranch to its natural state and allowing public access, it's hard to view the project as an environmental threat.
There would need to be ironclad safeguards to limit development to those few - however luxurious - dwellings and ensure no changes in plans.
It would be ideal if the county could retain ownership. Perhaps officials can find another way to fund restoration, such as using the land for mitigation banking, a process in which developers pay for restoration work in exchange for damage done in projects elsewhere.
But opponents should not let their discomfort with a profit motive keep the county from determining whether a public/private strategy will provide the best deal for the public and the environment.
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