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    Trust says money will decide land's fate

    Meanwhile, preservationists have an eye on the Lake Dan property, central to the dream of a tri-county wildlife corridor.

    By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 28, 2002

    Many of rancher Kay O'Rourke's neighbors oppose her proposal for a 227-home equestrian subdivision on a pristine 1,682-acre tract because they want the property to become part of an ambitious tri-county wildlife corridor.

    But while controversy centers on O'Rourke's property in far northwest Hillsborough County, to the west lies an even larger parcel that is just as vital to the project's success.

    The 1,800-acre tract, which sprawls from the uppermost northwest tip of Hillsborough County into northeast Pinellas County, is sometimes referred to as the Lake Dan property. The land also comprises the Eldridge-Wilde wellfield, used for decades to supply water to Pinellas and now a major asset of regional supplier Tampa Bay Water.

    According to Craig Huegel, who manages Pinellas' Brooker Creek Preserve, about 1,000 acres are located in Hillsborough. Backers of the 35,000-acre corridor could obtain a portion of O'Rourke's property and still make the project work, he said. But the dream of linking the preserve to the Starkey Wilderness Park in central Pasco County cannot become a reality without a large chunk of the Lake Dan tract.

    The acquisition faces a similar challenge to the one posed by O'Rourke.

    The Lake Dan property recently became part of a trust composed of descendents of one of the original property owners. Trust attorney Harry Cline said that H. George Wilde's descendents will try to make as much money as possible off the property. That's not an encouraging note to preservationists who normally can't offer as much money as developers.

    Four landowners, including the Wilde Trust and O'Rourke, must be convinced to part with some land, Huegel said.

    To create the corridor we "would have to buy the Eldridge-Wilde wellfield," he said. "We wouldn't necessarily have to buy every square inch, but it would be in everybody's best interests if we did.

    "I'd like to think the project is so important that people will partner with us . . . and a subdivision will not go up in its place."

    Told about the Trust's financial goals, corridor supporters said this week they will focus more attention on the Lake Dan tract. The Keystone Civic Association is spearheading local efforts, with help from the Tampa Bay Sierra Club.

    Decades ago, land was cheap in northwest Hillsborough and northeast Pinellas. But driven by suburban congestion and the availability of large tracts, values rose exponentially.

    The agreement (later amended) that Wilde, his wife Marjorie and Clarence and Delany Eldridge worked out in 1953 with Pinellas officials might be considered remarkable these days. The couples essentially signed a long-term lease that covered their property taxes on the land.

    H. George Wilde died several years ago, Cline said. The estate, only recently settled, led to the establishment of the trust. The beneficiaries are Wilde's several children, he said.

    While familiar with the interest in buying the land for preservation, Cline said money will decide the property's future.

    "It's only a recent development that the trustees can do anything with it," he said. "Now we're in the process of evaluating what we have and what we can and should do with it. We don't have any immediate proposals. Everything is in the air."

    But "it will be sold to, probably, who pays the most money," he added. "That could be preservation, a developer. They will be trying to maximize their investment or return."

    The property is considered a top priority acquisition under Hillsborough's Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program, which has purchased or preserved thousands of acres throughout the county. ELAPP acquisitions manager Kurt Gremley said he has made little progress toward obtaining Hillsborough's portion of the tract, no different than his fruitless efforts to get O'Rourke to offer her land for preservation.

    Ellyn Kadel, real estate administrator for Pinellas, would not talk about what she has discussed with the Wildes or their representatives.

    Huegel said he remains optimistic about the corridor's chances of success. Although difficult already, trying to negotiate with more than four landowners would make things even harder, he added.

    On the bright side, Huegel pointed to the support that corridor backers received last month from the Acquisition and Restoration Council, a governmental body that oversees the Florida Forever program.

    Restoration council director Marc Glisson said the board asked corridor supporters to come back with a more specific plan laying out the different partnerships. The council could vote to add the project to its acquisitions list as early as December, said Glisson, who called the corridor "an extremely rare opportunity."

    -- Josh Zimmer can be reached at (813) 269-5314.

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