Officials: Transferring Cone Ranch to ELAPP could be tricky
Environmental activists won a huge victory recently when an advisory panel recommended that county-owned Cone Ranch stay in public ownership under the county's conservation lands program.
The recommendation now goes to county commissioners who will discuss it at a Dec. 16 meeting.
The panel's vote blunted a proposal by a small group of businessman to sell off 12,000 acres of the 12,800-acre ranch to private buyers. Environmentalists lobbied furiously against that proposal and won the panel's recommendation to instead preserve the ranch under the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program.
Now, worried that other private interests will set their sites on acquiring the ranch, the activists are pushing for the county commission to act quickly and put the land in the safe hands of the ELAPP program.
"While it is county property, there's a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity to settle the issue of Cone Ranch once and for all and protect it once and for all," said Mariella Smith, a Sierra Club spokeswoman and member of the ELAPP general committee.
But even if the county commission adopts the panel's recommendation, transferring the ranch to the ELAPP program could prove to be a tricky and lengthy process.
The ranch, located in northeast Hillsborough County, is now controlled by the county's Water Resource Services Department. The water department operates like a business and must be paid fair market value for land it owns. And the water department's bond holders, who loaned the county money for water system improvements, would have to OK any sale.
Also complicating matters is the fact that Tampa Bay Water, the regional water supplier, owns pumping rights on Cone Ranch. Tampa Bay Water's nine-member board of directors would have to agree to give up those rights before the land could be sold outright to ELAPP. Those talks have yet to begin, according to a Tampa Bay Water spokeswoman.
"This is pretty complex situation," said Michael Kelly, the county's director of real estate. "There are a couple of factors. One is the Tampa Bay Water development rights, whether they can be released. I don't think anyone knows the answer to that at this point."
Some of the ranch land is also tied up in leases for cattle grazing and sod farming.
Ranch Value Unknown
One of the first steps the commission would have to take if it wanted to transfer the ranch to ELAPP is to have the water department declare it surplus property, a requirement of the bond covenants. Then several appraisals would have to be done to determine what the property is worth.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he will make a motion at the Dec. 16 meeting to start the appraisal process.
"I don't want to just receive the report and put it on a shelf," Hagan said. "I want to implement it and do what we can to preserve this land forever."
The appraisals could be complicated by the advisory panel's suggestion that wetlands on the ranch be restored and used as a wetlands mitigation bank. Developers, who plan on destroying wetlands elsewhere, could mitigate that damage by buying credits in the ranch's mitigation banks.
"If it could generate significant revenue (as a mitigation bank) usually it would affect the value," Kelly said, "but not enough study has been done yet."
Commissioner Rose Ferlita has suggested that the ranch could also be used for carbon sequestration credits, which polluting industries could buy to offset their carbon emissions. Carbon, a greenhouse gas, is stored in a plant's cells.
ELAPP Money Tight
Another potential problem is that ELAPP may not have enough money to pay fair market value for the ranch, whatever that may be.
A year ago, voters overwhelmingly approved continuing the ELAPP program, authorizing commissioners to issue up to $200 million in bonds for land purchases. But in the wake of this year's budget problems and a shrinking economy, commissioners said they would not approve a bond issue that would raise the ELAPP property tax, even by a tiny increment.
That decision caps the coming bond issue at $65 million, said Mike Merrill, the county's utilities and commerce administrator. And $20 million of that is earmarked to buy 1,673 acres in the Brooker Creek corridor in northwest Hillsborough. What remains might not be enough to cover the fair market value of Cone Ranch. The county paid $12.2 million for the property in 1988.
"I think the next step would be to get that appraisal done as quickly as possible so the board has the facts to make a decision," Merrill said.
Ferlita said she wants to protect Cone Ranch, but she doesn't want to lose the opportunity to purchase other valuable tracts targeted by ELAPP for preservation, including the Georgetown Apartments, 80 waterfront acres in South Tampa.
"I want to save Cone Ranch because it's something we should preserve for our citizens," Ferlita said. "At the same time, we're going to have to wrestle with what we have in terms of ELAPP dollars."
The dilemma could be solved by using a conservation easement, Merrill said. The easement is a legal agreement by a property owner, in this case the water department, to preserve the land. The easement would protect the ranch from development until ELAPP has enough money to buy it, and give the county time to negotiate with Tampa Bay Water over the pumping rights.
Jan Smith, chairman of the ELAPP general committee, agrees a conservation easement might be a good temporary solution. But ultimately Smith believes the ranch belongs in the ELAPP inventory because of its size and its importance to the area's environment as a watershed and wildlife corridor.
"In my opinion, this should be the No. 1 priority for the ELAPP land program," Smith said. "It would be a great place for the general public; a recreation area that is basically an untouched part of Old Florida."
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