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Saturday, Feb 25, 2017

Pinellas not keen on selling ‘water war’ properties

CLEARWATER — Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader traveled to Clearwater on Tuesday hoping to persuade Pinellas commissioners to sell the Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches back to Pasco County.

It may have been a wasted journey.

After hearing from Schrader and a delegation of Pasco officials, a majority of Pinellas commissioners still seem set against the sale of the neighboring ranches in north-central Pasco bought decades ago during the so-called water wars, when communities scrambled to secure future water supplies for their residents.

Pasco leaders want to link the two ranches that total 12,400 acres through a series of trails to other nature preserves to promote ecotourism in the county. Buying the land, valued at roughly $57 million, according to a state audit, would fulfill the county’s promise to Pasco residents who recently extended the Penny for Pasco sales tax, Schrader told Pinellas commissioners.

“We have made a commitment to the taxpayers of Pasco County,” he said. “As you can see, we are certainly willing buyers.”

The sticking point is water.

The Cross Bar ranch includes 17 water wells that at their peak pumped 30 million gallons of water a day. The wells and a small area of land around them are owned by Tampa Bay Water, a regional authority formed in 1998 that provides drinking water for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey.

Production from the wells has been reduced as the authority has turned to rivers, reservoirs, a surface-water treatment plant and a desalination plant for most of its supply. But commissioners opposed to the sale say it would be foolish for the county to give up a future water source in the event the authority is dissolved or the county wants to opt out.

“For me it’s not about Tampa Bay Water, it’s protecting that option for future generations in this county,” Commissioner Norm Roche said.

Schrader said Pasco would also accept a deal in which a conservation easement is placed on the land, meaning it could not be developed. Under that plan, Pinellas would retain ownership and be able to continue its agricultural and logging operation, but would also pick up the tab for managing the lands.

One other option is that Pasco would buy only the Al Bar property, which does not have water wells.

Those options likely will be discussed at a workshop on Pasco’s request scheduled for Tuesday.

Susan Latvala and Ken Welch were the only commissioners to indicate support for the sale.

“It’s not just that it’s the right thing to do for Pasco, that revenue can be used to offset our expenses on maintaining our preservation lands,” Latvala said.

The extension of the Penny for Pasco will raise an estimated $45 million for the county to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive land. Schrader warned that Pasco cannot wait too long for a decision.

“If Pinellas County is not a willing seller, we will have to go pursue other opportunities,” Schrader said.

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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