Cone Ranch purchase recommended by ELAPP panel listen09/17/09 Seán Kinane
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Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP, may be in the market to buy the site north of Plant City known as Cone Ranch. The nearly 13,000 acre property is owned by the county’s water department but has been coveted by a group of investors known as the Florida Conservation and Environmental Group, or FCEG.
In May, County Commissioners created a seven-person advisory panel to consider all options for Cone Ranch, including selling it to FCEG. Those investors say they intend to sell portions of the land to six “conservation buyers” who would preserve it indefinitely. But some environmentalists hope the county does not privatize the land and have recommended that ELAPP purchase Cone Ranch instead. Dee Layne, a member of the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel, says that besides purchasing the property outright, a less expensive alternative could be for ELAPP to purchase a conservation easement on the land.
Earlier this week a citizens’ panel that makes recommendations to ELAPP chose the Cone Ranch property as the county’s top priority land for acquisition. That pleases Kent Bailey, a Democratic Party activist and proponent of keeping Cone Ranch in the hands of the public.
The ELAPP citizens’ advisory panel also recommended purchasing the 160 waterfront acres on the former site of the Georgetown apartments on West Shore Boulevard. Most environmentalists agree that Cone Ranch needs environmental restoration, but its current owner, the county water utility, can’t afford it. Denise Layne says the water department must get fair value if it sells the land.
Purchasing a conservation easement on the property would cost ELAPP from 10 to 80 percent less than buying the property outright, according to staff figures cited by Layne. She says that the advisory panel is asking the county to review all of the ELAPP options for Cone Ranch.
ELAPP has expressed interested in purchasing a conservation easement as an alternative to buying Cone Ranch, Layne says, and the law allows it. ELAPP could even purchase the property outright at a later date. One way for the restoration of Cone Ranch to pay for itself, according to Layne, would be through wetlands mitigation banking overseen by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Activist Kent Bailey says he hopes that ELAPP will purchase Cone Ranch rather than just an easement.
The Hillsborough County Commission must approve using ELAPP funds to purchase land. The next meeting of the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel will be in early October.