Options to buy land hit snags

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Monday, January 11, 2010

TAMPA — Members of the group that recommends which environmentally sensitive lands Hillsborough County should purchase greeted plans for protecting the Cone Ranch with skepticism Monday.

The county's top debt manager presented two possibilities to members of the general committee for the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program.

The 12,800-acre tract in northeast Hillsborough is currently owned by the county as a prospective drinking water well field. Commissioners have voted to transfer the property to ELAPP to be preserved and opened to the public.

County Utilities and Commerce Administrator Mike Merrill has maintained that the county must pay fair market value for the land even to transfer it from one branch of county government to another. That's because the land is considered an asset of the county's water utility, serving as a collateral of sorts for debt the utility has taken on.

Merrill is suggesting two possible strategies to avoid paying full price. The first is to ask the company that ensures that the water utility can pay its debts to bondholders to relieve the county of the obligation for the water department to be paid full value, and simply transfer ownership to ELAPP.

The second option is to delay the transfer until 2015, when the water utility pays off its current debt. The utility is set to issue new bonds for construction work in coming months, but it would warn investors up front that Cone Ranch is going to be removed from the water department's list of assets backing the new bonds.

Under either option, ELAPP would likely have to pay book value — roughly what it paid for the property in 1988 — between $12 million and $13 million. That's expected to be much less than market value, which some estimate could top $50 million.

Some ELAPP committee members, or others in the audience for the discussion, questioned Merrill's assertion that paying fair market value is a requirement.

He said that this position has been validated by repeated opinions through the years from outside bond counsel, most recently last week.

"It's not just me making this stuff up," Merrill said.

Others expressed concerns that under the second option, the transfer would not take place for five years. Various people have stepped forward with proposals for developing parts of the property through the years, and some ELAPP supporters fear that any delay will leave a window open.

"I'm not convinced it's stopping these cockamamie schemes from coming up," ELAPP committee member Mariella Smith said.

Merrill said steps can be taken to lessen that possibility, such as having the county enter a contract to never develop the land. He will present his proposals for transferring the land to county commissioners Jan. 21.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.