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Commission divided on sale of land to Pasco County
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY COMMUNICATIONS
This education center built by Pinellas County at a cost of $1.3 million opened Dec. 9, 1993 at Cross Bar Ranch. Currently it is used primarily by Pasco County schoolchildren.
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY COMMUNICATIONS
Cross Bar and Al-Bar ranches are part of the Florida Scrub Jay Management Program. The Florida Scrub Jay was officially listed as a threatened state species by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 1975 and it was listed as a threatened federal species by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987.
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY COMMUNICATIONS
The sale of pine timber from Crossbar and Al-Bar ranches is expected to generate millions of dollars over the next seven years.
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Photo courtesy PINELLAS COUNTY COMMUNICATIONS
Pine straw is one of the ways Pinellas County pays for costs to maintain Crossbar and Al-Bar ranches in Pasco County.
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
Richard Gehring, Pasco County’s Planning and Growth Management administrator, explains Pasco’s reasons for wanting to buy Crossbar and Al-Bar ranches during an Aug. 13 work session.
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Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
The location of Crossbar and Al-Bar ranch in Pasco County is pointed out on a map during an Aug. 13 work session.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County has many good traits that appeal to residents and visitors alike, but it does not have a plentiful source of drinking water. Never has.

Compared to more inland areas of the state, the small coastal peninsula wedged between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay has limitations on quantity and quality of its drinking water supply. Due to its geography, the county is dependent on outside sources.

In 1970, well fields located in Hillsborough and Pasco produced 46.6 percent of Pinellas’ drinking water and by 1977, the dependency on outside sources had grown to 52.6 percent.

So-called “water wars” were common between Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties and even private landowners. Unregulated pumping of groundwater from the Florida Aquifer resulted in the death of cypress trees, loss of wetlands, ponds, lakes and other water bodies dependent on ground water, as local governments struggled to provide adequate supplies of drinking water to support the region’s fast-growing population.

To help satisfy Pinellas County’s needs, in 1975, the Utilities Department purchased Crossbar Ranch, about 8,000 acres of land in central Pasco County located east of U.S. 41 and north of State Road 52. Seventeen active wellhead sites are located on 6.41 acres of the property. The wells began producing in 1980.

Al-Bar Ranch and its 4,100 acres adjoining Crossbar was added to Utilities’ land portfolio in 1990. The combined 12,400 acres of land is valued not only for its water wells, but it also generated $6.2 million from sale of pine straw and pine timber over the past 10 years. The land is a preserve for a variety of endangered species.

Pinellas County Commissioners discussed the possibility of selling the ranches to Pasco County to add to its environmental land holdings during an Aug. 13 work session. Commissioners Janet Long, Norm Roche and Commission Vice-chair Karen Seel are opposed to selling the land at this time. Commission Chair Ken Welch spoke in favor of the sale as did Commissioner Susan Latvala, longtime proponent of selling the land to Pasco. Commissioner John Morroni was absent.

Before the discussion, County Administrator Bob LaSala talked about what went on between Pinellas and Pasco counties and the state in 2008. Pinellas County had been poised to sell the property to Florida Forever to help fulfill the state-run program’s goals of preserving the sites rare species, protecting, restoring and maintaining the quality of land and water in the state, and increasing the acreage of the groundwater-recharge area.

“The Crossbar/Al-Bar Ranch has a very high value as a water-recharge area,” according to a 2008 report from Forever Florida.

The ranches were added to Florida Forever’s acquisition list, but the recession and lack of funds put an end to the sale. According to media reports in 2008, Pinellas County wanted to sell the land to pay for a new Utilities plant.

The county reasoned that the need for the land and its water resources were no longer needed thanks to Tampa Bay Water, a non-profit utility that now supplies wholesale drinking water to Hillsborough County, Pasco County, Pinellas County, New Port Richey, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

Pinellas County sold the wells and its water rights on the ranches in the mid-1990s as part of the deal that created Tampa Bay Water, which was established in 1998.

Latvala is confident that Tampa Bay Water will supply Pinellas County’s future water needs. She prefers spending the county’s available funds on land preserves within Pinellas County – not on land in another county.

According to a 2012 audit by the Clerk of the Courts Inspector General, over the 12-years prior, the ranches had a net loss of more than $1.9 million. The county also spent more than $1.3 million to build an educational center, which Latvala said is primarily used by Pasco County schoolchildren, and $114,487 for two buses, which officials had planned to use for “safari” tours of the property.

Pinellas County paid $11 million for the ranches. About half the land is used for conservation and preservation of endangered wildlife. The other half contains the well fields, as well as land set aside for timber and pine straw production and cattle operations and other activities. The four homes on the property as used by private contractors who provider land management and security services.

Timber harvesting began in 2011 and was expected to bring in about $3.1 million over 10 years of time. Proceeds go to the property owner – Pinellas County Utilities. Any revenue after expenses from the pine straw operations also goes to Utilities. Some officials believe the ranches can pay their expenses now that timber harvesting has begun.

David Scott, executive director of the Department of Environment and Infrastructure, said last year, Utilities made $343,000 profit on pine timber alone. Seel said although revenue has been breakeven or no profit in the past, the potential for profit exists for at least the next seven years.

In 2012, Pasco County valued the land at $58 million. In 2008, media reports show that the land was assessed at $176 million.

Seel doesn’t believe selling county property while the market is still depressed is the right thing to do. Seel voted against the sale of other county-owned property in recent years. She would like to wait until closer to 2017 to decide the fate of Cross Bar and Al-Bar. In 2017, a 35-year contract with the property manager expires.

Commissioner Norm Roche also is opposed to selling the land. He doesn’t think it is a wise idea to count on Tampa Bay Water to take care of Pinellas County’s needs forever. He believes it would be smarter to hang on to the land just in case.

“The property is our lifeline. It’s our water,” he said. “It’s prudent for our future – 30 years from now – to preserve our option for future generations.”

LaSala reminded Roche that Pinellas County no longer owns the wells or water rights on the property. He did admit that if something happened and Tampa Bay Water was dissolved, Pinellas County “in all likelihood” would have first claim to the wells.

“Thirty years from now that property could be very, very valuable,” Seel said.

She suggested looking at an agreement with Pasco County to give first right of refusal to buy the land at market rate should Pinellas ever consider selling.

“That should ease their concern of what we would do with it, if Tampa Bay Water ever went away, to protect our interests,” she said.

Latvala argued that the state was moving toward creation of regional water supplies, moving away from pumping of ground water in favor of alternative water supplies.

“There is no justification for keeping the land,” she said.

She said Pinellas County’s ownership of the ranches is a “burr under their saddle,” and the hard feelings between the two counties since the water wars had “bothered her” the whole time she’s been in office.

“We’ve spent a lot of money, making a pristine habitat, a scrub jay habitat,” Latvala said. “We’ve done a remarkable job. But our citizens have no use for it. It’s too far away. It doesn’t serve a purpose for our citizens.”

Commissioner Janet Long wasn’t keen on selling the property. She wanted to know why more people from Pinellas didn’t visit the land. She asked why Pinellas County schoolchildren didn’t use it the same as Pasco County’s did.

“Land is one thing in the world we don’t have anymore,” Long said.

She said that due to economic conditions, it did not make good financial sense to sell the land. She wants to look for ways to promote its use.

“A lot of people today don’t know much about it,” she said. “It would be a mistake to sell it.”

Richard Gehring, Pasco County’s Planning and Growth Management administrator, explained Pasco’s reasons for wanting to buy the land.

“It is our intent to add it to the framework of our land management,” he said.

Money is available from the Penny for Pasco funds, which start in 2015.

He said owning the ranches would allow Pasco to form “critical linkages for wildlife to move through the system.”

“We want it to stay rural and agricultural,” he said, adding that plans involved a trail system and camping.

Pasco County is aiming for a 50-50 mix of urban and preservation for 500,000 acres. He said the county was now trying to assemble the land it needed to reach that goal.

Commissioner Charlie Justice asked to see a better analysis of costs and revenue potential. He requested information on how money from sale of the land could be spent, since the property owner is Utilities not Pinellas County government.

“Pasco’s goal is laudable. If the situation was reversed, we would probably seek something similar,” he said.

Welch also pointed out the home rule issue.

“If another county owned a chunk of Pinellas, we would be trying to get it,” he said, agreeing with others that now might not be the right time to sell.

“But I’m open to continue the discussion,” he said.

Latvala said Tampa Bay Water paid $140,000 million for the water rights on the property.

“The return on our investment is done,” she said.

Pasco County wants to protect the land from future development and believes owning the property is the only way to stop a future Pinellas County Commission that “just sees dollar signs” from developing it or selling the land to a developer, she said.

“The No. 1 issue in the future globally is going to be water,” Seel said. “That’s why we need to keep this land in an abundance of caution.”

Seel pointed out that $80 million of the $140,000 million had gone to put in new water pipelines to accommodate the type of disinfectant Tampa Bay Water uses. She said nothing prevented Pinellas from collaborating with Pasco to protect home rule using an interlocal agreement or contract.

Roche agreed that an agreement giving Pasco first rights to buy the land if Pinellas decided to sell it in the future was a good compromise. He said perhaps Pasco could partner with Pinellas when the land management contracts come up for bid in 2017.

“I’m not opposed to having a conversation with the Pasco County Commission,” Long said.

Long suggested a field trip to visit Cross Bar and Al-Bar ranches, as well as all the preserves located in Pinellas. She said if Latvala was correct and budget cuts were doing harm to the county’s preserves, perhaps budget adjustments were needed.

“Globally water is becoming our most precious resource,” Long said.

“Water is important,” Latvala said. “Tampa Bay Water solved that. We don’t have to worry about our future.”
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