Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel meets for first time

06/29/09 Seán Kinane
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Earlier this month, the Hillsborough County Commission set up a task force to consider a proposal to sell most of county-owned Cone Ranch north of Plant City. This morning at the County Center in downtown Tampa, the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel met for the first time.

The proposal to purchase Cone Ranch comes from a private entity called FCEG -- the Florida Conservation and Environmental Group. Ken Jones is a principal with FCEG.

“The group’s idea for Cone Ranch, in concert with the Nature Conservancy, is to preserve Cone Ranch permanently, with an iron-clad conservation easement, and make sure that Cone Ranch is never developed.”

Hillsborough County purchased the nearly 13,000 acre Cone Ranch in 1988. Ownership was transferred to the water resources enterprise fund in 1991. Because of responsibilities to bondholders, the water utility enterprise must operate as a business, according to John Sheahen with the county’s water resources department.

“The business plan for the utility would be to take all actions appropriate to support the business, which wouldn’t have anything to do with environmental restoration unless there was some kind of contamination. For instance, if one of our diesel tanks leaked at the plant.”

According to Paul Vanderploog, director of water resources for Hillsborough County, 62% of Cone Ranch is pasture or grazing land, and most of that is under lease. 35% is wetlands and the remaining 3% is upland forest. Because of recent declining real estate values, Vanderploog said that a sale will only occur if the water utility enterprise receives fair market value in exchange.

“You can well understand with the marketplace in the condition that it is today and the overall concerns we have, Cone Ranch is not actively being offered for sale by the enterprise. Maximizing value of non-performing assets – if that’s what the Ranch is found to be – is not supported by market conditions at this time.”

Mark Adams is a bond attorney for the water utility. He says the $96 million owed on Cone Ranch bonds are set to be paid off by 2015. If the county sells the property, any proceeds would have to be deposited in the water utility’s renewal and replacement account, and those funds “can only be used for replacement of capital assets, extraordinary maintenance or repairs, or bond redemption. You can’t use it to reduce rates; you can’t use it for operating expenses as was discussed. You’re very limited.”

The panel to consider FCEG’s proposal and what should be done with Cone Ranch is made up of seven citizens, each one appointed by a county commissioner. On Monday the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel selected Heidi McCree - who was appointed by Jim Norman - to be chair. Rosanne Clementi - appointed by Rose Ferlita - was elected vice chair.

The FCEG’s Ken Jones insists that the private investors could do a better job of conservation than the county.

“The general public always assumes that the county is doing what they should be doing to protect the land. With Cone Ranch, that’s simply not the case. So what we would do is implement a management plan over all 12,000 acres. Even though there may be six different parcels, the land management plan would be consistent, the conservation easement would be consistent, and we actually restore and preserve the land in much better condition than the county or the utility department’s doing today. In fact I think if you listen to the comments of the water resource services division of the county, they’ll tell you that they’re not looking at this land from the perspective of environmental or conservation. They’re looking at it as an asset on their balance sheet, end of story. There’s no thought given to any environmental conservation whatsoever.”

In a letter to Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean dated June 15, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson asks to address the county before any disposition of Cone Ranch occurs because of, quote, “the revenues that this wonderful piece of property has generated for Hillsborough County. The cattle lease, pine straw raking lease, and pine plantation thinning operation are now or have in the past brought the County a return on their investment.”

In a letter Jones says that FCEG will receive fees for the transaction and land management. FCEG has not given the county specifics about how much they expect six “conservation buyers” to offer for the Cone Ranch property.

“Truth be told, Cone Ranch as a financial investment probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. You’re not going to get real estate speculators; you’re not going to get commercial developers. These types of buyers are conservation buyers. Their goal is to preserve land and protect it for future generations. … Ted Turner and his son Bo Turner I think just did a deal in the Panhandle whereby, I don’t know the exact acreage, it was tens of thousands of acres where they spent millions of their own dollars to preserve a piece of land because it was the right thing to do. ”

But not everyone is convinced that the unnamed ‘conservation buyers’ are simply looking out for nature. Marcella Osteen from Balm is a member of United Citizens Action Network, or UCAN.

“Well, I would look at that with a very jaundiced eye. I would think that any investor is exactly what it says: investor. They’re looking to – let me think about it – make money? So I would be skeptical -- anybody that comes in here to buy [Cone Ranch] with dollars would not be looking to make money. And just out of the goodness of their heart to restore it, I don’t think so.”

Six people addressed the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel during the public comment section of the meeting. Five of them emphasized their hope to keep public ownership of Cone Ranch. The next meeting will be on Monday July 20th.

Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel website

Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel

Hillsborough County Water Resource Services

Previous WMNF coverage of Cone Ranch - May 6

Previous WMNF coverage of Cone Ranch - June 3

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