Private Cone Ranch meeting irks advisory panel member
November 3, 2009
A rift has developed on Hillsborough County's Cone Ranch advisory committee over a meeting between county officials and a private group of investors who want to sell a large swath of the 12,800-acre, county-owned ranch.
In a letter to county Public Affairs Administrator Edith Stewart, advisory committee member Vivienne Handy protested Stewart's meeting with Ken Jones, a partner in the Florida Conservation and Environmental Group. Also at the meeting were Mike Merrill, the county's utilities and commerce administrator, and Heidi McCree, the advisory committee chairwoman.
Handy said the rest of the seven-member committee was not notified and did not ask McCree to attend the Oct. 16 meeting in Stewart's office.
"As a member of the panel, I would like to be informed any time somebody participates on my 'behalf,'" Handy wrote last week in an e-mail to Stewart, the county's liaison to the advisory committee. "A meeting on our 'behalf' without our prior knowledge does not sound to me like proper representation."
Handy also questioned why a letter from Jones to Stewart had not been forwarded to the advisory committee before its Oct. 23 meeting.
"The letter should have been placed on the agenda and the panel allowed to discuss and vote on FCEG's request," Handy wrote. "Why did this not happen?"
Stewart could not be reached for comment Monday.
McCree said she was not trying to hide anything from the rest of the committee; she simply wanted an update on what information county employees would be providing at the Oct. 23 meeting.
"I just wanted to be the best-prepared chair as possible so we could have an efficiently run meeting and provide committee members with meaningful information," McCree said. "The committee is the ultimate decision maker."
Jones and his partners had proposed selling most of the ranch in six, 2,000-acre tracts to buyers who would agree not to develop the land except for one home and out-building per tract. The remaining 800 acres would become a county park.
County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan supported the plan as a way to permanently protect the ranch. The land is owned by the county water department, which could sell it to developers with commission approval.
But county environmental groups, concerned that the investors' proposal eventually could lead to development, have united in opposition. Also opposing the plan are property owners who live around the ranch in northeast Hillsborough County.
Some members of the advisory panel, including Handy, opposed the plan early on; a July 20 motion to keep the ranch in county ownership narrowly failed on a 4-3 vote.
In light of the resistance, Jones wrote Stewart on Oct. 19 that his partners were willing to scale back their original proposal. They are now proposing that the county's conservation land-buying program participate in preserving the land along with private buyers.
Jones also suggested some of the ranch could be used for wetlands mitigation banks, where developers buy credits to make up for destroying wetlands elsewhere.
Handy said she didn't learn about the meeting in Stewart's office until she read Jones' letter, which was included in an information packet given to the advisory panel at the Oct. 23 meeting. However, the committee didn't discuss the letter.
"I thought, surely, it would be a discussion item," Handy said. "It seemed like a pretty important item to be brought up."
The advisory committee meets again Nov. 16 and will begin discussing what recommendations should be made to county commissioners, McCree said. Jones has asked for permission to present the investors' modified plan at that time.
The county commission will get an update on the advisory committee's work at 10 a.m. Wednesday.