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Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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A triumph for nature, government

For citizens who don’t believe they can affect government, the dedication of the Hillsborough County Lower Green Swamp Preserve on Tuesday should be instructive.

The parcel in northeast Hillsborough will provide valuable wildlife habitat and serve as a retreat for nature lovers, including hikers, equestrians and bird watchers.

But things easily could have been far different for this section of the Green Swamp if citizen activists had not vigorously fought for the county to save what formerly was known as Cone Ranch.

The nearly 13,000-acre tract had once been scheduled to become a drinking-water wellfield and was owned by the county’s water resources services department.

But the wellfield plans were abandoned, and a few years ago local investors sought to develop part of the tract as exclusive wooded estates for a few wealthy landowners.

This was no bulldoze-and-pave scheme. The thoughtful proposal would have preserved most of the land and even included a public area, but residents objected to the county sacrificing environmentally valuable land — at the same time the county is using tax dollars to save such tracts.

They questioned why the utilities department could not give it to the county’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.

This sensible idea ran into some complications when county officials said a bond issue required the utility department to sell the land at the highest and best use, that it could not simply transfer ownership to another agency without compensation.

But conservationists persisted, pointing out the bond language had no such specific prohibition. County officials ultimately determined the land could be switched without affecting the county’s bond ratings.

The result: County commissioners transferred Cone Ranch to the parks department, where it has become the Lower Green Swamp Preserve.

Some of the land will continue to be managed as a cattle ranch and pine plantation, but 400 acres now will be open to the public. And the county can ensure that this water-resource and wildlife refuge will be safeguarded.

This would not have happened if citizens, concerned about their resources and tax dollars, hadn’t gotten involved and county government had not given appropriate attention to their arguments.

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