Citizens debate fate of Cone Ranch transfer to ELAPP

01/12/10 Concetta DeLuco
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Controversy continues to surround the fate of Cone Ranch. Last night, a heated discussion by a citizen advisory panel for Hillsborough County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program or ELAPP continued over how to preserve the 12,000 acres of Cone Ranch.

Cone Ranch is owned by Hillsborough County and has been managed by the county’s water utility since 1991. Debate about what to do with the property began months ago when a local business group offered to facilitate the purchase of the land. Last month, the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners agreed to transfer Cone Ranch from the control of the county’s water utility to ELAPP, the county’s preservation program. In last night’s meeting, there was a dispute between citizens and the water utility about how the transfer should be made. ELAPP member, Mariella Smith, was left discontented with the utility’s proposals.

Smith was not alone in her belief that the county should simply transfer the property between the two Hillsborough County departments. There were more than 20 conservationists in attendance who agreed with her and disagreed with county’s utility administrator, Mike Merrill, on various issues. He argued Cone Ranch is considered collateral for bonds that have funded the water utility’s maintenance and expansion, including the acquisition of Cone Ranch. Giving the land to another department without paying for it would violate the agreement with bondholders.

Typically, such a transfer, Merrill said, would involve ELAPP purchasing the land for the fair market value of around $50 million. However, to get around the high price tag, Merrill has proposed two less expensive options. The first involves seeking permission for the transfer from the company that insures the water utility’s bonded debt.

Merrill pushed for the second option which he considered more likely to happen. The utility’s current debt is set to be paid off by 2015. However, the county will soon be selling new bonds to pay for future water utility maintenances. Merrill suggested that a provision could be placed in the contracts of the new bonds that bond holders would have to agree to and that would allow the property to be transferred to ELAPP in 2015 for the “book value” of $12 million.

One member of the public, Laura Swain, disagreed with the second proposal. She does not believe the new bonds can guarantee that any future county commission will be bound to transferring the property to ELAPP in 2015.

ELAPP’s Smith further disagreed with Merrill that ELAPP would be allowed to make restorations on the property before it is purchased by ELAPP.

The Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners will ultimately determine how the transfer is made. And in the end, Merrill said he is not the only person involved in deciding what recommendations to make to the board on January 21.

ELAPP Chair Jan Smith refused to vote on the recommendations saying the ELAPP was not responsible to make the financial and legal decisions regarding Cone Ranch. ELAPP already did its job in pushing for the BOCC to transfer Cone Ranch to ELAPP.

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