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Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Water managers, Hillsborough at odds over selling preserve land

— More than 170 acres of Hillsborough County conservation land, purchased in part with county taxpayers’ dollars, are on the verge of being declared “surplus” and eligible for sale or trade by state water authorities.

The land was identified as surplus in a recent assessment by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Officials at the district, commonly known as Swiftmud, said the land does not meet the agency’s core missions of flood control, water quality, water supply and natural systems.

Though the county paid half the purchase price for the four parcels and also manages them, Swiftmud holds title to the land. Under a policy adopted in February by its governing board, the district can sell, exchange or transfer any properties determined to be surplus in assessments conducted every two years.

Hillsborough parks and recreation officials are contesting the decision, claiming the parcels have other redeeming environmental features that argue for preservation in their natural state.

“We look at whether natural systems are threatened and endangered species are on the land,” said Forest Turbiville, interim director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.

“From an environmental standpoint,” Turbiville said, “we just want to make sure sites with either unique environmental characteristics or that serve functions such as parking areas for horse trails … those land are continuously preserved.”

County and Swiftmud officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the land in question. Michael Babb, chairman of the Swiftmud board, said he thinks some kind of compromise can be worked out.

One option, Babb said, might be for the county to trade some other land it owns that has less environmental value or that is surrounded by water management land so the district can manage it.

“Next week county staff and Swiftmud staff are going to sit down and review this and see if there is some opportunity that other lands that may be controlled by the county could be better served by Swiftmud management,” Babb said.

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Swiftmud’s actions angered environmentalists and members of the board that runs the county’s land conservation program, known as ELAPP. They pointed out that the lands in question were purchased after an exacting investigation by the ELAPP site assessment team and further examination by the agency’s site selection committee.

“When properties are acquired, part of the criteria is that they have conservation value,” said Jan Smith, chair of the ELAPP General Committee. “When they are acquired, if there are portions of those properties that don’t have that value, those portions are delineated.

“It’s not a mystery,” Smith said. “There are no hidden areas that shouldn’t be on the conservation list.”

Babb, the water district chairman, disagrees. He said in the past Swiftmud and other state agencies purchased large tracts of land that included lower-value areas.

By selling these “hostage lands” to private interests and putting them back on the tax rolls, the Swiftmud board was only fulfilling its fiduciary responsibilities, Babb said.

The bulk of the land in question consists of three tracts totaling 163 acres in the Alafia River corridor. The county evaluated the land at Swiftmud’s request and documented ecological, recreational and cultural characteristics.

The county pointed out that the land has several species listed as threatened or species of special concern including gopher tortoises, Sherman fox squirrels and kestrels. One tract has huge live oak trees, including one 250 inches in circumference. The trees likely qualify as “grand oaks,” the county report said, and they should be evaluated for State Champion Tree status.

“Hundreds of live oaks provide aesthetic value and (this) is an ideal site to retain for low-impact recreation,” said the report prepared by Turbiville and Kurt Gremley, the ELAPP acquisition manager.

The same tract has one mile of a horse trail and includes the trailhead and parking for the remaining 12 miles of equestrian trails.

A third parcel is a critical wildlife corridor leading from state-owned lands west of County Road 39, the report said, and also is a link in a conceptual plan for a regional circular trail between Lithia Springs and Alafia State Park.

“One of the things that ELAPP is really working on is creating wildlife corridors and protecting riverine systems of the county,” said Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida. “It turns out that these places along the Alafia River that were bought in conjunction with the water management district are key sites in terms of those criteria.”

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If the Swiftmud staff and board decide to designate the tracts as surplus, the county has the right to buy the property first at 50 percent of the appraised value. But it’s doubtful the county would have the money to do that.

Only $3.5 million remains in the ELAPP land-buying fund from a $59 million bond issue approved by county commissioners in 2009. The rest was spent to buy 17,000 acres of undeveloped land, including the 12,800-acre Lower Green Swamp Preserve, formerly called Cone Ranch.

Swiftmud’s moves to reassess and surplus county lands were seen by some environmentalists as yet another attack on land conservation by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. In his first term, the governor vetoed $306 million appropriated by the Legislature for the Florida Forever land conservation fund. He also ordered water management districts to cut property taxes they levied by 30 percent, a $210 million hit to the agencies.

In 2011, the general counsel of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ordered water management districts to put land purchases on hold and to reassess their current land holdings. The DEP is an agency that reports directly to Gov. Rick Scott.

Babb, the Swiftmud chair, said the agency is not following a lead from the governor.

“I wouldn’t say any of this was pushed down to us from the Scott Administration,” he said. “Several years ago when this policy was initiated, they were just doing what they thought was in the best interests of the taxpayer: identifying lands that are not on the tax rolls and giving it back to private interests that could be better stewards of the land.”

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