Cone Ranch panel defeats proposal to end consideration of land sale to private owners

07/20/09 Seán Kinane
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The advisory panel tasked with recommending to the Hillsborough County Commission whether to sell Cone Ranch met for the second time this morning. In a four-to-three vote, the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel narrowly defeated a motion that would have guaranteed that the property north of Plant City would stay in county hands. But that does not mean the panel will accept a proposal to sell the land to private owners.

After only one full meeting, Cone Ranch environmental advisory panel member and vice chair Rosanne Clementi proposed recommending that the nearly 13,000 acre property remain county-owned. That would have eliminated the possibility of Cone Ranch being sold to the private group called FCEG – the Florida Conservation and Environmental Group. Clementi’s motion was greeted with some applause from the public and was seconded by panel member Hugh Gramling. Clementi says she wants to move the process along more quickly because of the amount of county staff time taken up in the panel.

“I think we’ve all seen enough … I’ve already been to the property. I can see the value. I understand the value of the land. Besides just water supply: the reason why it was purchased was for a wellfield and I can see many, many other values for it.”

But four members said that while they might ultimately agree to keep the land in public hands, they preferred to hear all the information at future meetings before making that decision. That includes Commissioner Ken Hagan’s appointee, Dee Layne, who called the motion “premature.”

“I’m interested in seeing what the proposal is. Don’t know if it’ll work, I have nothing pro or con with it, but I think we owe it to them to listen to what they have to say. If we don’t like it, then we make the motion. But I think there’s an education part to all of this that we’re getting it and we’re seeing certain things, but there’s nothing finite. It could a piece of this and a piece of that and we need to explore that before we make any bottom line motions. But I know their hearts are in the right place there and we’re going to do what’s best for the property and for this county.”

FCEG is proposing that private investors purchase Cone Ranch from the county water utility and preserve it indefinitely. The spokesperson for FCEG, Ken Jones, says he is pleased the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel did not dismiss his group’s suggestion.

“Well obviously we’re happy that we’re going to have a chance to present the proposal. And frankly, the reason why this panel is even empowered and has come together is because of the proposal that we put forward to the County Commission. So for them to have not even considered what we have to say in a formal presentation would have been somewhat short sighted.”

The proposal calls for FCEG to coordinate with The Nature Conservancy to find six “conservation buyers” who would agree to a conservation easement on the property. Keith Fountain is director of land acquisition for the Nature Conservancy in Florida which has been involved in conservation easements in the past.

“There are potential owners of property out there that are interested in owning land long-term for them, their heirs, or third parties – you can sell this property down the road – for its recreational values and agricultural values. A “gentleman’s ranch” so to say, where people could run cattle, go turkey hunting, that type of thing, perhaps even conduct ecological thinning of timber. And I don’t want to stereotype the situation because conservation easements are very flexible and the uses that are retained or allowable on a property are very negotiable.”

FCEG’s Ken Jones insists that any conservation easement placed on the sale of Cone Ranch would be “iron-clad” and permanent and not allow residential or commercial development aside from caretaker homes.

But some panel members worried whether conservation easements on land sold to private owners would truly protect the land forever. Currently the county’s water utility owns the property. Mike Merrill, the county’s utilities and commerce administrator reiterated that if Cone Ranch is sold, the proceeds can not go toward conservation or restoration.

“Cone Ranch is part of an existing piece of debt that is currently on the books, and so any new debt that we issue has no impact on that. So, when we’re talking about rules that relate to Cone Ranch, they’re the rules that we’ve already talked about, which is fair market value, highest and best use, any proceeds from the sale go into the renewal and replacement account of the utility system.”

An option would be for the county’s land preservation program, ELAPP, to purchase Cone Ranch from the water utility. But despite Hillsborough residents’ support of the program on a referendum last November, Merrill says funding might be a problem because the County Commission has limited the amount that can be levied for ELAPP to its current 0.06 mills.

“ELAPP would have to purchase the land at fair market value just like anyone else. But there are options there, too. They wouldn’t have to purchase it fee simple: we, the utility, could sell them a conservation easement. The utility could retain the conservation tax credits, the mitigation credits and all the other value. Maybe that would be a cheaper price, then, for ELAPP. … The voters authorized $200 million, but a 0.06 [mill] levy based a depressed tax base; we’ve estimated will only allow us to borrow $60 million to $70 million.

Hillsborough County purchased Cone Ranch as a water well field for $12 million in 1988. It had been owned for the previous decade by Adnan Khashoggi, an arms dealer from Saudi Arabia who served as a key middleman in the Ronald Reagan administration’s arms sales that came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair.

County administrator Pat Bean called Cone Ranch “a great asset for this community” and asked the panel that it be kept as it is, in order to preserve its utility bond rating.

“We need to protect it and make sure that it is only used in a way that is compatible with its original intent, which is to be a conservation area. And as you and I all know that's how it is right now. It is preserved and can not be developed or anything on there other than a few special projects.”

The advisory panel suggested that the county’s water utility proceed with an assessment to determine the land’s value. According to a technical resource group made up of pertinent county staff that could take four to six months and cost about $100,000.

The next scheduled meeting of the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel is Friday August 14th. They will hear from the FCEG group on their proposal to purchase the property.

Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel website

previous WMNF coverage of Cone Ranch

Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel

1998 management plan for Cone Ranch

Hillsborough County Water Resource Services

Protect Cone Ranch on Facebook


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