Keeping preserve public

Published Friday, December 18, 2009

The bitter fight over the Cone Ranch nature preserve looks to be ending on the right terms. Hillsborough County started the process last week of moving ownership of the ranch from the county's water department to its environmental lands program. That should end any more talk of selling the preserve to private buyers. But the county needs to go further and commit to restore the property.

County commissioners embraced the recommendation of a citizens' committee to keep the ranch in public hands. That committee was formed to vet a proposal by a group of private investors who wanted to buy the ranch and subdivide it into six 2,000-acre parcels. The deal would have barred the investors from developing the property, and advocates said the county would make enough money from the sale to restore the ranch's environmental quality.

The citizens' committee and the commission deserve credit for realizing that Hillsborough could better protect Cone Ranch by keeping it publicly owned. Chopping it into parcels under control of multiple parties never made sense as good land management strategy. Cone Ranch is a major headwater of the Hillsborough River, Tampa's primary drinking water source. The county has a vital interest in recharging the entirety of this conservation area.

Wednesday's move, though, is only a partial victory. The ranch is an asset of the water utility, and county officials want the property appraised to assess how much the environmental lands program should pay. This is a waste of money that could inflate the cost. The ranch lies within a nature preserve that bars almost all development. And the water department has been a poor steward of the property. If anything, the commission should discount the land for the mere sake of handing it over to the preservation program. Cone Ranch's only asset, after all, is its environmental quality. Yet the commission agreed to spend up to $250,000 for an appraisal (the same amount it refused to spend earlier in the day to buy out County Administrator Pat Bean's contract). The county property appraiser is more than up to doing the job. By maximizing the sales price for what would be an internal transfer of property, commissioners could leave the county with less money to buy other endangered lands.

Moving the ranch to the environmental program is a good first step. Commissioners need to follow through with a restoration plan for the property and enough money to carry it out. The county could have done this a decade ago and saved time, hassle and money — but it's not too late.