Hillsborough gets closer to protecting ranch land

By Michael Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer

Published Monday, November 16, 2009

TAMPA — A Hillsborough County task force recommended Monday the preservation of Cone Ranch, saying it should be protected from development.

The vote pleased neighborhood and environmental leaders who opposed a plan to divide the land and sell separate parcels to private interests. The task force instead agreed to have the Water Resource Services Department, which has water rights to the land, deed the 12,800-acre tract in northeast Hillsborough to the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program, or ELAPP.

"We got what we needed," said member Denise Layne. "I really believe the county commission is going to listen to us."

Hillsborough County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the recommendation at their Dec. 2 meeting.

The panel was created at the urging of commission Chairman Ken Hagan after the Florida Conservation & Environmental Group, made up of local businessmen, proposed that it be allowed to subdivide Cone Ranch into six parcels and collect brokerage fees for selling them to private interests. The buyers would have had to agree to preserve the parcels in perpetuity by agreeing to what are known as conservation easements.

Last week, the group told the county it was tabling its offer, which had been characterized by residents as a sweetheart deal concocted behind closed doors. The land is part of an important wildlife corridor and watershed, and some residents feared the county was shirking its responsibilities for protecting it.

The water utility owns the land because it was once considered a potential well field, but its value for that purpose has diminished.

Prior meetings of the task force had sometimes been contentious, but Monday's final meeting was marked by a clear consensus. It took members less than an hour to agree on their recommendation.

If commissioners approve it, the water utility must sell the county the land at its "fair market value," which will be determined by appraisals.

The only member of the task force who voted against the recommendation was Hugh Gramling, executive director of Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers. Gramling said the land already was protected from development and this would waste money that ELAPP could spend on other properties.


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