Although Pinellas County government has finally agreed to do what it expects of private property owners — pay legally owed taxes, in this case on land the county owns in Pasco — officials need to wise up even more and look at the bigger picture.
The land in question, the 12,500-acre Cross Bar Ranch north of Land O’ Lakes, needs to be put in preservation, either through Pasco’s environmental lands acquisition program or the state’s Florida Forever initiative.
Pinellas officials initially refused to pay back taxes of more than $100,000 on the property, claiming the county was exempt, an absurd stance considering the ranch is in another jurisdiction. They eventually came to their senses. Now they should team up with state and Pasco County officials and work out a deal to forever protect the property so the general public can enjoy this magnificent, environmentally sensitive land.
Pinellas uses the ranch for agricultural purposes, and it has become a large classroom for public school students.
Much of the legwork already has been done. In 2008 a delegation of officials from Pinellas and Pasco traveled to Tallahassee to champion Cross Bar’s inclusion on the Florida Forever Acquisition and Restoration Council’s “A” list, and they succeeded. But then the economy went south and money became an issue that couldn’t be overcome. Some officials estimated then that the price tag could be $100 million or more.
Cross Bar also contains a public drinking water wellfield, part of Tampa Bay Water’s network that provides potable water to residents in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. And groundwater is still an essential part of the region’s supply — nearly 60 percent so far this year.
Tampa Bay Water owns 17 wells and transmission mains. A legal covenant “perpetually protects” the agency’s use of its part of the property to provide drinking water and restricts what Pinellas can do with the ranch. The uses must be compatible with the well sites.
So it makes no sense for Pinellas to continue to hold onto the property — which it has owned for decades and once was a focal point of the “water wars” between the two counties — as is. Although Pinellas government has a fiduciary responsibility to its taxpayers, officials should reach a deal to put the ranch in the hands of Pasco or the state to forever protect it and the drinking water it generates.