Cone Ranch Advisory Panel Makes Decision

11/16/09 Concetta DeLuco
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After months of debate, the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel made a final decision today about the recommendations it would make to the Board Of County Commissioners.

In a 6 to 1 vote, the Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel voted to recommend that the BOCC transfer control of Cone Ranch to ELAPP (Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program). Panel member Hugh Gramling was the opposing vote. The decision comes on the tail end of months of debate in deciding whether to sell the nearly 13,000 acre Cone Ranch to the private investors FCEG or preserve it. The motion to preserve was brought forth by panel member Denise Layne.

Layne: "We, the Cone Ranch Advisory Committee, recommend the the Board Of County Commissioners to direct the Water Department to convey title to ELAPP of the entire Cone Ranch property. WE believe that this is the best, and underline best, to protect, preserve, and restore Cone Ranch in perpetuity."

Cone Ranch has been under the control of Tampa Water since 1990. In mid-2008, FCEG offered to purchase the land and divide it up among six “conservation buyers. The notion to sell the property to a private investor, however, has stirred a lot of controversy among those in support of preserving Cone Ranch and transferring its control to ELAPP.

Among at least 20 citizens in attendance at the meeting Monday, a man who calls himself Alligator Bob said putting Cone Ranch in the hands of ELAPP is the only “logical choice.”

Bob: "The property of Cone Ranch should be preserved and we have an entity within the county created years ago to preserve the natural resources of our community. Once these properties are developed for public or private use the natural resources of that land is lost forever. I fought three battles to keep Cone Ranch as it is or let it go back to nature. I would like you to do the same thing. Make that recommendation, let the fee simple transfer of property go to ELAPP. ELAPP knows how to manage it. They know how to make money off of it. This property is valuable to us. We are going to preserve it. We are going to make it the public accessible to it and the public is willing to pay for that."

Before today’s meeting, FCEG put its proposal to buy Cone ranch on hold. After an unofficial meeting on October 16, FCEG sent a letter to the advisory panel stating their new proposition. It aimed at working with ELAPP. Panel member, Vivienne Handy, a staunch supporter for citizen input at the meetings, said she was upset when she saw the letter at the meeting for the first time without ever being given prior notice of the October 16 meeting.

Handy: "I was just concerned that it was not brought to the attention of the panel during the October 23rd meeting as a discussion item because, because it made it sound as if there was representation for the entire panel at that meeting, yet none of the panel members had been informed. So, I was waiting for it to be brought up as a topic and it wasn't. I felt that was not a way to handle it."

The issue that remained on the table at this morning’s meeting was deciding how to preserve the property and keep it in the public’s control. A motion made by panel member Rosanne Clementi stated that the land should remain at its status quo and continue to be publicly owned under the control of Tampa Water. This motion was rejected by several committee members. Panel member, Pamela Jo Hatley likened the fate of Cone Ranch to that of Brooker Creek if Cone Ranch were to remain publicly owned.

Hatley: "One point I'd make is Brooker Creek; its in public ownership but what is going on out there is supposed to be a preservation with development all over the place out there for utilities, mixing facilities, and all kinds of things. I don't want to see that happen on Cone Ranch. I believe the status quo is not acceptable because under the utilities business plan it is not going to take care of this property the way it need to be taken care of. Its going to be staying under public ownership and its going to be protected then that needs to be explicit in the public ownership and the only way we can do that is through ELAPP.

Marcella Oh Steep made her way to the podium to express her support for not leaving Cone Ranch in the hands of Tampa Water, in fear that down the line, Cone Ranch will face similar problems.

Steep: "I thought that Cone Ranch was safe pretty much, when I thought about it at all I figured, was in the bag until the brokers hum with the proposal to buy it. And much to my surprise the County Commissioners instead of just saying no it is not for sale, entertained the notion. This is a scary thing and they are treating it like a commodity. If times get hard, down the road harder, then they may say all you taxpayers to have your services in place we have to sell this commodity. Anything can happen with a commodity. The Pandora's box has been opened; I can see that now."

Additional recommendations were added to the motion that passed including ensuring that the public have access to the property and requiring that the BOCC follow up with the ELAPP if ELAPP were to take control of the property.

Panel member, Hugh Gramling voted in accordance with these recommendations, but in the end voted in opposition of passing the packaged motion. Gramling said the recommendations made by the panel are just recommendations and the ultimate decision comes down to the BOCC. Wesley Bailey said he is ready to take on the BOCC, as well, in his campaign to preserve Cone ranch.

Bailey: "There has been a tidal wave of support for Cone Ranch so far. This is just a trickle compared to what is going to happen at the BOCC if this panel does anything other than recommend Cone Ranch go into ELAPP. You were put here to probably take the heat for making a tough decision but in any event you've got e-mails ;you've received phone calls. It's nothing compared to whats coming, trust me. We have held our fire held our powder for the County Commissioners meeting and they are going to feel the heat."

The date for the next Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners meeting for Cone Ranch is yet to be determined, but there is a possibility of it taking place on December 2.

FCEG’s letter to Cone Ranch Environmental Advisory Panel to put proposal on hold: story on secret-ish meeting:

link to previous WMNF stories on Cone Ranch: Search cone ranch

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