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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Mormon-affiliated group buys 143 acres in Hillsborough for farming

— A non-profit corporation affiliated with the Mormon Church has purchased 143 acres of state-owned land in south Hillsborough County that the corporation says will be used for agriculture.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet approved the $803,000 sale without discussion on Tuesday. The buyer, Farmland Reserve, Inc., is a non-profit controlled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the official name of the Mormon Church. The church’s Florida operations are run by Deseret Ranches.

Deseret Ranches general manager Erik Jacobsen said in a press release that the property abuts agricultural land already owned by Farmland Reserve, Inc. “Our intent is to expand our agricultural operations on this additional acreage,” Jacobsen said in the release.

The church became Florida’s largest private landowner recently when it finalized the purchase of nearly 400,000 acres in the Panhandle from paper-mill and real estate giant, St. Joe Co. That sale brought the church’s total holdings in Florida to 672,834 acres, or 1,051 square miles, nearly equal to the size of Hillsborough County.

The 143 acres purchased Tuesday consists of two non-contiguous parcels between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75, south of the Little Manatee River. The land was once slated for a state-backed alternative school for juvenile offenders. Community opposition blocked the alternative school from being built, according to the Hillsborough County School District website.

In 2000, the school district bought 225 acres of the original 368-parcel to construct the South County Career Center, a trade school. The school opened in August 2002.

Before the sale went to the cabinet, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection evaluated the land and determined it was not worth conserving. The money from the sale will be used by the state to fund future purchases of environmentally significant land.

Kurt Gremley, acquisition manager for the county conservation program known as ELAPP, said the two tracts are isolated and not part of any important wildlife corridors. ELAPP’s board has identified other, more-desirable tracts on which to spend its limited resources, he said.

“We’re trying to emphasize the linkage between existing sites,” Gremley said. “The land is surrounded by development and agriculture fields; it really doesn’t connect to too much. There are really other projects that would warrant the funding.”

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