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Pasco County mulls preserving former Ft. King ranch

LAND O'LAKES — Nearly three decades after Freeman Polk unsuccessfully attempted to auction his massive Fort King Ranch, the thousands of acres north of State Road 52 just might have a new buyer — Pasco County.

Last week, a county advisory committee recommended adding the nearly 3,600-acre ranch to Pasco's environmental lands acquisition list. It is the largest piece of property the county has considered acquiring from a willing seller.

"It is situated in a place where we need to get more wide and connectable spaces together,'' said Mac Davis, a member of the county's Environmental Lands Selection Committee.

The property, now known as Secret Promise, is owned by the heirs of the late St. Petersburg heart surgeon Dr. J. Clayton Pruitt. The land sits north of SR 52 close to the intersection of Ehren Cutoff and stretches eastward toward Bellamy Brothers Boulevard. The Florida Estates Winery is on the site.

Pruitt obtained much of the land for $3.1 million in 1997, just three months after Polk sold the property to satisfy creditors. Seven years earlier, Polk, owner of the Standard Auto Parts chain, attempted to stir national interest in the 5,500-acre ranch by advertising for potential bidders in the Wall Street Journal. He ended up rejecting a high bid of $7.2 million, but eventually had to liquidate his holdings as part of a bankruptcy proceeding.

The Secret Promise property totals 3,586 acres. The remainder of the former Fort King Ranch is now the 2,000-acre 4-G ranch, east of Secret Promise, and is owned by William "Ted'' Phillips. The only other Pasco environmental acquisition project that rivals the size of Secret Promise effort was the failed attempt to obtain the 12,400-acre, Pinellas County-owned Cross Bar Ranch. That attempt died in 2014 when a Pinellas commission majority said it wasn't interested in selling.

If commissioners approve the committee's recommendation, the next step will be to obtain appraisals and to begin negotiations with the sellers. The Pasco Property Appraiser's Office lists the market value of the land at more than $14.8 million.

The sheer size of the potential acquisition left committee members concerned about busting the budget for future land purchases through the Penny for Pasco-financed Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program.

"I think we're all afraid — our budget is not that big — that this is going to wipe it out,'' said committee member Janice Howie.

Secret Promise, represented by former Pasco Commissioner Ted Schrader and land use attorney Joel Tew, tried to alleviate those fears.

"Given the opportunity, you have be presently surprised at the outcome,'' Schrader said.

The land carries a planned unit development designation, allowing nearly 1,300 homes, plus 100,000 square feet of non-residential development on about 1,500 acres. The current proposal calls for the county to acquire the development rights of the property, known as a less-then-fee acquisition, rather than purchase of the land. The owners would prefer an outright sale, if possible.

"The mandate ultimately is to liquidate the asset,'' Tew told the committee.

Given that, negotiations are expected to include multiple possibilities, including adding a partner; acquiring the ranch in stages; seeking some restoration of the property, which is dominated by the invasive cogon grass, and potential public use for passive recreation.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District identified the land years ago as worthy of preservation because of its proximity to the well fields and because it includes streams, reservoirs, marshes, wet prairies and wetland forests. About half the land is a pasture.

The property is not part of the land the county included in its designated wildlife corridor, but it is considered worth saving as agricultural reserve land.

"I just can't image what this committee would do five years from now,'' said committee member Chris Miller, "if we passed up an opportunity like this.''

"And we'd have another Spring Hill,'' said Davis.

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