Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches encompass more than 12,000 acres located in central Pasco County. The blue boxes on Cross Bar are wellfields owned by Tampa Bay Water.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Pinellas County Commission Chair Karen Seel questions staff Feb. 4 during a discussion on selling Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches to Pasco County.
Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY
Pasco County schoolchildren use the educational center on Cross Bar Ranch constructed by Pinellas County for $1.3 million. The commission is interested in exploring ways to allow more public use of the property.
CLEARWATER – Majority ruled Feb. 4. Pinellas County will keep its land in Pasco County.
It was a contentious decision made toward the end of an all-day meeting. After a staff presentation followed by a sometimes passionate debate, most commissioners remained opposed to selling more than 12,000 acres of land located in Pasco County to Pasco County.
Commission Vice-Chair Susan Latvala strongly supported selling Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches. She said it was “the right thing to do.” Commissioner Ken Welch also supports selling the land, calling it a “home rule” issue. He said the land had served its purpose.
Commissioner Charlie Justice leaned in favor of selling, but wanted to know what the land was worth. He said since Pasco County wanted the land, it should pay for the appraisal. County staff estimated an appraisal cost of $20,000 to $30,000.
“I’m willing to sell if it’s the right price,” Justice said.
Justice also wanted to know exactly how the county could spend the money, since the property belongs to the Utility Department’s Enterprise Fund.
Commissioner John Morroni said he understood the pros and cons. He said he was “half-way there” to considering selling at least one of the ranches.
“But the pit of my stomach is telling me not to sell,” he said.
He added that land values were down.
“Right now might not be the best time to get the best bang for our buck,” he said.
Commissioners Janet Long, Norm Roche and Commission Chair Karen Seel strongly opposed giving up the property. Their primary concern was ensuring that Pinellas had its own water supply in the future.
“Years down the road when the question is asked, ‘who the hell let this happen,’ I don’t want that to be the 2014 Board of County Commissioners,” Roche said.
Pinellas bought the 8,200-acre Cross Bar Ranch in 1976 and the adjoining 4,200-acre Al Bar Ranch in 1990. All 12,400 acres are located in central Pasco County. Utilities paid $11.1 million total for both parcels.
Historically, Pinellas County has been dependent on outside sources for its drinking water with more than 50 percent of its supply coming from wellfields located in Hillsborough and Pasco County. “Water wars” were common through the 1990s and unregulated pumping of water from the Florida Aquifer caused a number of environmental issues.
Pinellas purchased Crossbar to help supply its water needs. Seventeen wellhead sites located on 6.41 acres began producing drinking water in 1980. The county sold the wells and water rights on Crossbar in the mid-1990s as part of a deal that created Tampa Bay Water. Pinellas also sold Tampa Bay Water its wellfields on the Eldridge Wilde property in 1998. In return, the Utilities Department received $140 million.
Tampa Bay Water became a reality in 1998. The nonprofit utility supplies wholesale drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, as well as the cities of New Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Tampa. The utility uses a mix of groundwater, surface water and seawater to supply its member governments.
As part of a 40-year agreement, Pinellas County cannot produce its own drinking water unless Tampa Bay Water fails to meet the long-term needs of the six member governments. The agreement also states that if for some reason Tampa Bay Water would cease to exist, which some officials say is highly unlikely, its assets would be divided among its members with each getting a portion of each asset.
Back at the ranches
The concept of selling the land is not new. Pinellas planned to sell the land to Florida Forever in 2008 to help meet the state-run program’s goals to preserve, protect, restore and maintain land and water sources. The recession put an end to those plans.
Meanwhile, Pinellas continued to take care of the land and invested in preserving the rare species that live there. Timber and straw production, cattle operations and other activities were developed to generate revenue. Prior to 2013, timber and straw production was not a moneymaking operation. But last year, Utilities turned a profit of $343,000 on timber alone. Some commissioners question the wisdom of selling the ranches when they are finally beginning to make money.
One reason, according to those in favor of selling, is to raise money to pay for needed Utilities projects and reduce future rate increases for drinking water. Barbara Hoffman, chair of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, supports the sale. She told commissioners that the money was needed at home.
“It’s difficult to see money spent in Pasco County,” she said.
She said while preserving land was good, “it doesn’t help Brooker Creek.”
Budget cuts in recent years have resulted in reduced maintenance at the county’s parks and preserves.
Seel asked staff for a report on the needs at Brooker Creek.
Staff pointed out that selling the land in Pasco wouldn’t necessarily mean more money for parks and preserves since the money would go to the Utilities Enterprise Fund. Utilities outlined more than $31 million in capital projects in line for funding.
Latvala argued that it was “abundantly clear” that Pinellas had no need to keep land in Pasco.
“That land costs us money and there is no access to our people,” she said.
Seel argued that the commission had to consider needs of the county in 50 to 75 years.
“We need to be conservative” and not sell assets “we might need,” Seel said.
“Water is going to be the biggest issue globally in 50 years,” she added.
Pasco County’s offers
Pasco County set aside a portion of its next Penny for Pasco revenue to buy land it wants to preserve and use for environmentally friendly activities, such as hiking and camping. Pasco wants to buy Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches not just because they are a central piece to its environmental lands acquisition and management program, but also to ensure future Pinellas County commissions don’t sell it to someone who might not be a good steward of the land.
Commissioners discussed an offer from Pasco during a work session on Aug. 13 with the majority opposed. Soon after, they took a field trip to view the property.
Pasco County made another bid for the ranches during the Jan. 28 regular commission meeting. The presentation, titled Opportunities for Regional Collaboration, included an offer to buy the land as well as an alternative for the counties to work together.
The first offer was a fee simple scenario in which Pasco County would buy the land, continue what Pinellas County had started, as well as open the land to natural resource based recreation, such as hiking, fishing, biking, primitive camping and education activities.
The second offer was an easement scenario in which Pinellas would continue to own the land and operate its agricultural operations. Pasco would acquire a conservation easement based on fair market value. Natural resources, including water, would be protected into perpetuity. Pinellas would remain in control of management and pay the costs and Pasco would provide oversight.
While Pasco would like to own Cross Bar and Al Bar, that county’s staff is working on 11 other projects – all competing for Penny for Pasco funds. Pasco officials have said that if Pinellas does not accept its offers, the money will be spent on other projects.
Latvala said Pinellas County needed to act now, not wait for an improving real estate market.
“Now is the only time or they will spend the money on something else,” she said.
Long said she understood why some wanted to sell the property, but agreed with those who don’t want to sell.
She said she had talked to the public after speaking engagements and none had supported selling the land. Roche said he had heard the same. Justice said opinions of the people he talked to had been just the opposite.
“I agree with Commissioner Seel,” Long said. “The No. 1 issue globally is water. Today we sit here and think we have that solved. But we do not know what will happen in 25 or 50 years.”
Roche described the decision being made as a “legacy vote.”
“Yes it is,” Morroni agreed.
“It is imperative to protect this option for future use,” Roche added.
After it was clear that the majority was in favor of keeping the land, Seel asked staff to look into what it would take to open the land up for recreational use. The ranches are not now open to the public.
Pinellas has a deal with Pasco schools for students to take field trips to Cross Bar and use the education center, which cost Pinellas $1.3 million to construct.
County Administrator Bob LaSala said he would ask staff to figure costs based on different levels of public access.
“I’m interested in the public gaining more use,” Seel said.