Cone Ranch shift may take 5 years
January 12, 2010
Activists who want the 12,000-acre Cone Ranch immediately transferred to Hillsborough County's land-conservation program might have to wait five years.
County commissioners already have approved transferring the ranch from the county water department to the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP. But the county's bond attorneys say the program must pay fair market value, possibly as much as $50 million, for the land as required by covenants in bonds issued by the water department.
ELAPP has just $35 million available from a recent bond issue with which to buy land. But under a plan conceived by county attorneys, bond lawyers and a county financial expert, the county could wait until 2015 - when the water department's bonds mature - to transfer the property. At that point, the bond covenants would not apply.
The county could put in protections to make sure the land is not sold in the meantime, Mike Merrill, the county's utilities and commerce administrator, told a meeting of the ELAPP general committee Monday.
Merrill said the resolution could be structured so ELAPP could start restoring wetlands on the ranch before the bonds are paid off.
Another way the county conservation program might be able to avoid paying fair market value is if the company insuring the water department bonds agrees to forgo that provision. But Merrill said he is not hopeful the bond insurers will agree.
Environmentalists have been concerned about the fate of the land since a group proposed splitting the land into several large tracts and selling it to private interests, though with restrictions that the land be preserved.
Merrill's proposal was greeted with skepticism from some environmental activists at the meeting. Several said they believe the wording of the bond covenants does not require that the water department get fair market value for the property. They pointed out that the property was transferred to the water department for $12 million.
However, the county's bond attorneys have consistently interpreted provisions in the bond covenants dealing with disposal of the property as requiring fair market value.
Others at the meeting said they don't trust county commissioners, now or in the future, to honor a resolution guaranteeing the ranch will be protected by ELAPP. They pointed out that Commissioner Jim Norman once pushed to put a sports complex called Championship Park on the property.
"I'm not convinced it's going to stop these cockamamie schemes that have been coming up," said Mariella Smith of the ELAPP committee.
Merrill said he will present the two options to county commissioners at their Jan. 21 meeting.
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