SPRING HILL — Pinellas commissioners emerged from a bumpy, two-hour tour of the 12,400-acre Cross Bar and Al Bar ranch Thursday even more resolute in their positions regarding Pasco County's request to buy the property for environmental preservation.
A majority on the Pinellas board still oppose the sale.
“I'm even more dedicated to keeping ownership in Pinellas County,” Commissioner Karen Seel said.
Pinellas County bought the ranch in central Pasco County 37 years ago during Tampa Bay's “water wars,” when area governments were scrambling to secure future water supplies for their residents.
Seventeen wells were dug on the former cattle pasture and citrus grove. At their peak, the wells pumped 30 million gallons of water a day from the Floridan aquifer. Now, the wells are owned by Tampa Bay Water, and their importance to the region's water supply has decreased, as the agency relies more on rivers, reservoirs and sources other than well fields.
“We're all in a much different world right now,” said Honey Rand, who wrote a book on Tampa Bay's water wars. “Politically, everybody's in a different place.”
But Seel and other commissioners are reluctant to part with the property — in case the regional water authority ever breaks apart. “Why would we give up land that has water on it?” she asked.
Doug Hanson, an attorney who helped negotiate the original Tampa Bay Water agreement, said the contract was designed “to make it virtually impossible to deconstruct Tampa Bay Water.”
He said as long as Pasco County doesn't try to pump more water out of the well fields, there's very little risk to Pinellas County. “The possibility of Pinellas being able to use those well fields for its own use in the future is very low,” he said.
Pasco County commissioners want to use funding from the next cycle of Penny for Pasco — it has $45 million earmarked for environmental land acquisition — to buy the property and open it to the public. Currently, the only Pasco residents who are permitted to enjoy the property are middle school students who attend field trips to the learning center there once a year.
“People ought to be able to see this,” Chairman Ken Welch said as he gazed out at a field of wildflowers. “Pasco will do the appropriate thing as far as preserving it. For me, it's more a question of home-rule. I understand where Pasco is coming from.”
Regular audits by the Florida Inspector General found that, during a 12-year period ending in 2012, expenses at the ranch outweighed revenue by $1.1 million. Timber, cattle and pine straw operations, which help offset the cost of maintaining the property, turned a profit this year.
Commissioner Janet Long said she understands why Pasco wants the land. “I feel more strongly now that I've seen it,” she said. “I wouldn't be in favor of selling this land — especially now that it's entering into a profit mode with timber and pine straw.”
Commissioner Susan Latvala, who chairs Tampa Bay Water, supports the sale. “This was done for the right reason at the time, but we no longer need it for our ratepayers,” she said. “I think it's a win-win for both counties. My goal is that we make sure it's preserved forever and not sold for development.”
The land is valued at $57 million by the Pasco County property appraiser. “They have the money now,” Latvala said. “If they spend it on something else, when will they ever have that money again?”
Commissioner Charlie Justice said the county needs to get a new appraisal. “I feel relatively secure that we'll have access to the water through Tampa Bay Water,” he said. “My number one concern is getting a fair value for our citizens.”
Commissioner Norm Roche did not attend the tour but has opposed selling the property to Pasco.
Commissioner John Morroni, who could be the deciding vote, said he arrived at the ranch Thursday with an open mind. After the tour, he said he's leaning against the sale. “This is a heck of a piece of property,” he said. “I don't want to let this drag on. Let's get this on the table and make a decision in the next few months.”