Cone Ranch sale put on hold

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Thursday, November 12, 2009

TAMPA — The private group pitching the sale of publicly owned Cone Ranch has asked that its proposal be put on hold indefinitely.

Florida Conservation & Environmental Group says it wants to allow time for Hillsborough County to explore consolidating its water department, which owns the land, with other local water providers. That idea was proposed last week.

A representative of the group said it would be hard for the county to evaluate the sale of Cone Ranch while considering whether to consolidate local city and county water departments.

"It's sort of putting the cart before the horse," said Ken Jones, a partner and general counsel for the group.

County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he expects to keep looking for ways to preserve the ranch. A task force he helped create to analyze the group's proposal and other options is scheduled to meet Monday.

Hagan said he sees no reason to call the meeting off.

"From my perspective, this doesn't change anything," Hagan said. "My goal has always been to figure out a way to permanently preserve and restore this critically important land."

The 12,800-acre ranch in northeast Hillsborough is owned by the county's Water Resource Services Department. It was purchased in the late 1980s as a prospective well field, but its viability as a water source is doubtful.

For years, the county has leased much of the property to a cattle rancher, and it has not been open to the public. It is crisscrossed with canals that have altered water flow through the property, leaving many of its wetlands damaged.

But it is part of a larger corridor of government-owned land that is home to an array of wildlife and helps keep the water supply from being contaminated by development.

The private conservation group, which includes prominent Tampa businessmen, proposed earlier this year subdividing the ranch and selling it to private investors. The buyers would pledge to restore the land and preserve it in perpetuity, signing legal agreements to do so.

Under the proposal, the group would not buy the land for resale, but serve as a broker of sorts. It would make a commission on the transactions, and the county would make money on the sales.

But environmental groups have blasted the notion of the county selling off public land to private interests in the name of preservation. Some have asked the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program, the county's land preservation arm, to buy the property from the water utility.

In recent weeks, Commissioner Jim Norman has floated the idea of consolidating the county's water department with water utilities in Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

An evaluation of the merits of that proposal is under way, including a survey of the assets of each water utility.

Cone Ranch would play a part in valuing what the county brings to the table. That process could take up to a year.

"It appears that little can be done at the present time until the broader question of the water utility system consolidation is evaluated," Jones said in a letter Thursday to the county.