County moves to protect, appraise Cone Ranch
December 17, 2009
The 12,800-acre Cone Ranch will someday be part of Hillsborough County's conservation lands program, county commissioners decided Wednesday.
Commissioners approved an appraisal of the property, a first step toward its purchase by the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. The appraisal will cost an estimated $250,000, according to Mike Merrill, assistant county administrator for commerce and utilities.
The northeast Hillsborough property is owned by the county and listed as an asset of the Water Resource Services Department. An advisory panel appointed by the commission recommended that ELAPP purchase the ranch from the water department to make sure it's never developed.
Merrill told board members ELAPP must pay fair market value for the property. The water department has about $80.5 million in bonds outstanding, and covenants on the bonds require that a sale of assets owned by the utility can't be for less than an appraisal of the assets' highest and best value.
"For the utility system, our bondholders are our investors, and so they have an expectation that the county is going to live up to its promise and we're going to pay them on time and we're going to live up to the various covenants or agreements," Merrill said. "One of those covenants is that assets of the system have to be sold at fair market value."
Environmental groups oppose putting too high a price tag on the property because the land-preservation program has limited money. Although voters in November 2008 approved borrowing up to $200 million for land purchases, commissioners agreed to only bond as much as the current ELAPP property tax millage could support. On Tuesday, the county sold $56 million in ELAPP bonds, Merrill said; of that, $20 million has already been committed to another land purchase.
To allay environmentalists' fear that the ranch might end up in private hands some day, the board also agreed that any owner other than ELAPP would require a super-majority vote, or five of the seven commissioners.
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