Cone Ranch to be preserved always
Hillsborough County on Thursday set aside the largest piece of
land in the history of the county's conservation program.
County commissioners voted 6-1 to transfer
the 12,800-acre Cone Ranch from the county water department into its Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection
Program or ELAPP.
Commissioners made the move after the county's debt adviser told them the transfer could
be accomplished without hurting the county's AAA bond rating or raising water rates.
The move means the
land in far northwest Hillsborough will be protected from development in perpetuity.
"I'm ecstatic," said
Jan Smith, chair of the county's ELAPP general committee. "I think the county commission proved today it truly
is their intention to preserve this land for ELAPP."
Mike Merrill, the county's administrator for commerce
and utilities, said the county's bond insurers had no objection to the transfer. The insurance company's
attorneys still have to approve the transfer, but Merrill said he expected that soon.
Al Higginbotham voted no, saying he wanted to get written confirmation that the bond insurer's attorneys
say the deal is OK.
However, credit rating agencies suggested that ELAPP pay the water department
the land's $12 million "book value." That's the amount that the water department paid for the property in
ELAPP has $35 million left from a $52 million bond issue sold last month. The county has already
used $20 million of the issue to buy land in northwest Hillsborough. Merrill said the county could also borrow
the $12 million over five years at a low interest rate.
The conservation program gets its money from a
small property tax that voters reapproved last November.
Although the land is owned by Hillsborough County,
it is listed as an asset of the county Water Resource Services Department. The water department operates like a
separate business, and gets its funding from ratepayers, not taxes.
Merrill has drawn criticism from
environmental bloggers for insisting that water department bond covenants require that the land be sold at fair
market value. That could have raised the price of the ranch as high as $50 million.
The other option
Merrill had presented to the ELAPP board and county commissioners, and did again Thursday, was to wait five years
until the water department's bonds were paid off. In the meantime, the water department could put a provision
in an upcoming $125 million bond issue that says Cone Ranch would not be considered an asset.
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