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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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New dispute muddles sale of water-rich land in Pasco

— Pinellas County bought the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches in Pasco County during the so-called “water wars” of the 1970s and '80s, when counties and cities scrambled to secure access to drinking water.

Now, a new dispute has broken out over the 12,400-acre adjacent ranches that sit atop the Floridan Aquifer after a majority of county commissioners agreed to resurrect a proposal to sell the land to Pasco County, which wants to add to its parks system to promote ecotourism.

Commissioners opposing the sale issued a call for action Tuesday urging residents and local elected leaders to speak out against a move they say threatens the county's long-term independence as it would make it impossible for Pinellas to opt out of the Tampa Bay Water Authority in the future.

The commissioners said they will push for a referendum to give residents the right to veto any future sale of the land.

“A self-sustaining, self-reliant source of fresh, clean drinking water is the very lifeblood of our county,” Commissioner Norm Roche said. “This land is essential for our county to remain self-reliant for generations to come.”

The issue has sharply divided the normally cohesive seven-member board, with Roche and Commissioner John Morroni taking the unusual step of holding a news conference on the steps of the Pinellas County Courthouse downtown. Roche and Morroni are seeking re-election in November. Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel also opposed the sale.

Roche said commissioners pushing the sale have repeatedly raised the issue in low-key meetings in an attempt to overturn the commission's original 4-3 denial of the sale in February.

The latest sale discussion came at a budget workshop Thursday, when the lengthy list of funding requests from the sheriff and others led Commissioner Susan Latvala to suggest the sale as a potential one-time revenue source for the county.

Although not a formal vote, this time four commissioners — including Janet Long, who previously voted against it — supported asking Pasco to get the land appraised.

“This behind-the-scenes push is working,” Roche said.

At their peak, the 17 wells on Cross Bar Ranch pumped 30 million gallons of water a day from the Floridan aquifer. Now, the wells are owned by Tampa Bay Water, and the ranch's importance to the region's water supply has diminished as the agency has turned to rivers, reservoirs, a surface-water treatment plant and a desalination plant.

Latvala, who is also chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Water Authority, said using Cross Bar as a main water supply worked for a while, but the Southwest Florida Water Management District will no longer issue permits to pump the volume of water needed for the whole county.

“We have this rare opportunity to sell the land and probably will never happen again,” she said. “They have plans to run trails to it and have some of it open to the public, and we could never spend money to do that in another county.”

Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches include more than 6,000 acres of pristine wetlands, lakes and wildlife habitat. The ranch provides precious habitat for 19 listed species of concern, including the Florida sandhill crane, the Florida burrowing owl and the gopher tortoise.

It is also home to scrub jays and southern kestrels, leading the Audubon Society in 2000 to designate it an “important bird area.”

The county offsets the cost of maintaining the site through a 4,800-acre forestry program growing slash pines and long-leaf pines.

The land is valued at $57 million by the Pasco County property appraiser, according to a recent state audit.

Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader said Pasco remains interested in using Penny for Pasco funds to buy the land, but in light of the controversy, it might consider buying only Al Bar ranch, which does not have any wells. That idea would have to be approved by Pasco County commissioners, Schrader added.

“I told Commissioner Latvala if it helps to facilitate this, maybe we should focus on the Al Bar ranch, since it doesn't have any encumbrances,” Schrader said.


Reporter Laura Kinsler contributed to this report.

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