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County purchases 1,088 wooded acres for preservation

The land is the last link of a 25,000-acre wildlife corridor that rings Lithia's subdivisions.

Published March 3, 2005

It's fast becoming the rarest commodity in southern Hillsborough County: undeveloped land.

So on Wednesday, county commissioners unanimously voted to spend more than $11-million to keep 1,088 acres of heavily wooded real estate in Lithia from getting bulldozed.

"This is great, fantastic," said Commissioner Jim Norman before the purchase was approved without discussion.

It was the second-most expensive purchase of preservation land the county has made since 1987, when voters approved a levy of 25 cents for every $1,000 paid in property taxes. Since then, the program has spent more than $146-million to buy nearly 42,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land.

Officials expect to close in June with corporate giant Pulte Homes, which had planned to build 120 homes on the land. Pulte is seeking approval for 3,560 homes west of the preserved land. Commissioners will be asked to approve that project, called Lake Hutto, later this year.

County officials swore this wasn't a case of quid pro quo.

"We had to make sure there was no connection between this purchase and their planned project," said Kurt Gremley, the county's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program acquisition manager. "That's why we're getting this purchase done before they start with their approval process."

The land, near Bell Shoals Road and Fish Hawk Boulevard, is the last link of a 25,000-acre wildlife corridor that rings the booming subdivisions of Lithia, including FishHawk Ranch and Fish Hawk Trails.

Concerns about flooding in FishHawk Ranch prompted developers of that subdivision to sell land to the county for preservation in 2002, eliminating 2,500 homes from its planned subdivision. The entire corridor is so expansive it would take three days to hike all of it, said Pete Fowler, conservation manager for the county Parks Department. The land that commissioners agreed to buy Wednesday has been on the county's most wanted list since the Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program started, Fowler said. It's heavily wooded and is populated with gopher tortoises and scrub jays. The Alafia River flows along the south of the property.

The Florida Communities Trust approved a grant that will pay for about $7.8-million of the purchase.

Pulte Homes is listed as the contract purchaser, but the owners of the land are members of the Thomas ranching family.

In 2003, the county tried to buy the land when it was part of a total of 2,200 acres owned by the Thomases. After two appraisals, the county bid $18-million for the land. That was outdone by Pulte Homes' bid of $48-million, Gremley said.

Mike Thomas heads the family partnership that owns the land. His cousin is Robert M. Thomas, who has recently made news by selling thousands of acres in Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco counties to make way for homes. They're both grandsons of Wayne Thomas, who bought up cheap land in the 1930s and 1940s for a ranching empire that stretched for miles.

The Thomases wanted to sell to the county for years but never heard a good price, Mike Thomas said.

"The county is not one of our charities," Thomas said. "They wouldn't pay what the land was worth."

Though they lost the bid, county officials were approached by Pulte Homes in late 2003 to buy the 1,088 acres for preservation. Much of the land would be in the back yards of homes in FishHawk Ranch and homes Pulte wants to build in the Lake Hutto project.

"Developers tell us they like to have the lots back up to the preservation areas," Fowler said. "It makes the lots easier to sell."

Representatives with Pulte Homes and its attorney, Andrea Zelman of Fowler White Boggs Banker, could not be reached for comment.

This land will be available to the general public, not just to those who live on its borders, county officials say.

"It's a great piece of property," Gremley said. "If we didn't preserve it, it would have been paved over."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 3, 2005, 01:00:10]

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