CLEARWATER – A 4-3 vote on more than one occasion preserved Pinellas County’s ownership of Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches in Pasco County.
Cross Bar was purchased in the 1970s and Al Bar in the 1980s to provide drinking water for a county without reliable sources of its own.
Now Pasco County wants to add the land to its own environmental holdings. Past decision-points on the matter have pitted Commissioners Susan Latvala, who also is chairwoman of Tampa Bay Water, Ken Welch and Charlie Justice in favor of selling the land against Commission Chair Karen Seel and Commissioners John Morroni, Norm Roche and Janet Long, who opposed the sale.
The matter came back to the table during budget talks held off-camera in the commissioner’s conference room May 22. According to Roche, who is spearheading a call to action, Long changed her mind and expressed a willingness to find out how money the county could get if it sold the land.
A press conference is scheduled at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 27, on the steps of the Pinellas County Courthouse, 315 Court St. in Clearwater. The public is welcome to attend. Roche, Seel and Morroni are expected to attend.
“The purpose of the press conference is to announce a ‘call to action’ of Pinellas County’s citizens, residents and taxpayers to step forward and be heard in an effort to halt the process of inviting Pasco County government to seek an appraisal and the potential subsequent sale of approximately 12,500 acres of Pinellas County land, commonly referred to a Cross Bar and Al Bar Ranch,” Roche said in May 23 press release.
Roche called the purchase of the land a “wise and forward-thinking move” to “assure that current and future generations of Pinellas County residents would retain the invaluable option of an independent and self-reliant source of fresh, safe and clean drinking water.”
“An independent and self-reliant source of drinking water is the very lifeblood of any community. Without it, you have no community,” Roche said. “It this land is sold, Pinellas County will have effectively altered a long-standing commitment to an independent, self-insured and self-reliant existence and will thus render current and future generations of Pinellas residents indebted to a third-party vendor for their drinking water. This is completely unacceptable and simply cannot be allowed to happen.”
The third-party vendor Roche refers to is Tampa Bay Water, which currently supplies drinking water needs for Pinellas County and other member governments. Latvala, Welch and Justice believe a regional approach, through Tampa Bay Water, will sustain the area’s drinking water needs now and in the future.
Seel believes water will become one of the most precious resources in future years and has expressed a strong desire that Pinellas keep the ranches and the well fields. Morroni agrees and Long had sided with the preservationists in the past.
Roche said Long now supports getting an appraisal, something that Justice has requested since the matter first came up for a vote. Roche believes that Latvala is behind the continued push to sell the land. He said it was her idea to consider it during the recent budget discussion.
“Citing the need for the one-time and potential proceeds from the land sale to be put into the county’s general fund to enhance spending options, the vote switched and direction was given to proceed with the process by inviting Pasco County to conduct an appraisal on Cross Bar and Al Bar,” Roche said.
Roche pointed out that the Utilities department purchased the land with Enterprise Funds. He said Enterprise Fund money could not be used to supplement the general fund. He also said when he brought up that fact at the May 22 meeting Latvala turned to County Attorney Jim Bennett and said, “he had worked that out.”
Roche questions why staff was working on the matter when past decisions had said no to the sell.
Roche plans to contact elected officials at the local, state and federal level in an effort to block any potential sale of the two ranches. He invites the public to get involved.
“These 12,500 acres of land are owned by our taxpayers and paramount to our self-sufficiency as a county for generations to come,” Roche said. “The landowners, our taxpayers, should be told what is going on here, and have the right to a lead role in this process.”
Roche said the appraisal would have no effect on his decision.
“There’s no price to it,” he said. “How much is it worth? Doesn’t matter. The wealth is in its ownership.”