Ranch closer to being safe haven for turkeys, tortoises

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, December 16, 2009

TAMPA — Turkey and tortoises now call Cone Ranch home.

Hillsborough County commissioners say they want it to stay that way forever.

They made their first move Wednesday toward ensuring that the nearly 19,000-acre ranch in northeast Hillsborough is never threatened by developers.

Commissioners voted 6-1 to start the process of buying the land through the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program and ordered an appraisal. The property is now owned by the county's water utility.

That was recommended by a task force commissioners formed last year to evaluate a proposal from a private business group that wanted to sell off the ranch. The company, Florida Conservation and Environmental Group, had pledged to line up buyers who would promise never to develop the land. They pitched it as a creative way of preserving it.

Environmentalists objected, and the task force questioned the idea. Ultimately, Florida Conservation and Environmental Group tabled its proposal. Then the task force recommended that ELAPP purchase the property.

"I am absolutely delighted with the advisory panel's recommendation," said commission chairman Ken Hagan, who asked that the panel be formed and made Wednesday's recommendation.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner voted against the measure. He had asked that a consultant be hired to help figure out the cheapest way for ELAPP to acquire the property.

Cone Ranch is owned by the county, but it is an asset of its water utility, and it has been counted as an asset, or collateral of sorts, when the county borrowed to pay for new pipes and other equipment. Officials say that means the utility must sell it for market value and can't simply transfer it to ELAPP.

Beckner wanted a second opinion or to see if there is another, cheaper way to transfer the land.

As part of the motion approved, county workers were asked for up to three suggestions for how best to use tax dollars to transfer the property.

Voters last year authorized using up to $200 million to preserve environmentally valuable land. Commissioners don't want one project to eat up too big a chunk of the money.