5,100 acres soon to be yours

A Central Florida ranch could have become 800 homes. Instead, state officials decided Tuesday to buy it for $54-million and create a park.

Published May 17, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Tampa Bay equestrians, campers and hikers soon will have a major new state park.

State officials decided Tuesday to buy a long-time Central Florida ranch for $54-million, beating developers to the punch.

State environmental officials also heralded the purchase as a major boost to the state's water conservation efforts, since the land is part of the Green Swamp, the highest groundwater elevation in the Florida peninsula.

The 5,100 acres contain the headwaters to four major rivers and are a key link in feeding the Floridan Aquifer.

Tentatively named Colt Creek, the park is expected to provide some limited public access by year's end. It is just 8 miles east of Zephyrhills and about 10 miles southeast of Dade City, in Polk County just over the Pasco County line.

"I anticipate this will be one of the premier state parks. It is absolutely a great piece of land," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who helped coordinate the purchase, which involves money from the state, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Polk County.

The acquisition becomes the largest new state park since 1999, when the state opened the 4,900-acre Bald Point State Park in Wakulla County in the Florida Panhandle.

The purchase, which received final approval Tuesday from Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet, comes just a month before the longtime owner was set to sell the land to a private developer who planned to build more than 800 homes there.

And it brings an end to one of the region's best-known ranch operations, first started in 1939 when two brothers, then 16 and 18 years old, got a judge in their native Osceola County to declare them "free traders" so they could buy it.

Cattle rancher and younger brother Charlie Mack Overstreet, now 82, told Bush and the Cabinet Tuesday his emotions were mixed as he and his children sold the last major section of the original 8,600-acre parcel. Overstreet bought out his brother, the late Stanley "Chick" Overstreet, in 1947.

"I come before you with dry eyes, but inside they're very wet," Overstreet told the Cabinet. "I want this land to be useful. It kept me from starving to death for a long time. ... You couldn't buy this land if I wasn't 82."

Overstreet's son, Mark F. Overstreet, who has run the ranch since 1974 and will continue to live on a 62-acre parcel that isn't being sold to the state, told the Cabinet, "I want people to take pride in taking care of it. I was born and raised there."

It's the third time a piece of the original Overstreet ranch has come into state hands. In 1976, Swiftmud condemned about 2,000 acres, Mark Overstreet said. Then in 1982, the family donated 560 acres to the University of Florida to establish the Little Gator Creek Bird Rookery.

After the 1976 Swiftmud sale, the Overstreets used the proceeds to endow two chairs at the University of Florida in spinal cord research. The family has pledged to donate another $6-million from the current deal to support spinal cord and retina research, Mark Overstreet said.

The elder Overstreet suffers from macular degeneration, an eye disease that attacks the retina. The younger Overstreet was paralyzed from the waist down in 1970 when a rifle fell off a gun rack and accidentally discharged.

Mark Overstreet said his family has been receiving offers from developers for the land for more than a decade. And Charlie Overstreet had tried throughout that time to negotiate a conservation easement with the state, Dockery said. Under such easements, Overstreet would have retained ownership of the property but would have been prohibited from developing it.

But it wasn't until last August, when the family inked a deal with Sarasota developer Jordyn Holdings for an outright sale of the property, that negotiations with state representatives fully matured.

The contract with Jordyn included a 10-month escape clause that allowed the Overstreets to break the contract if it a government buyer offered them at least $10,500 per acre, and the deal closed before June 23.

"We didn't want to see the property in houses," Mark Overstreet said.

Under Tuesday's deal, expected to be finalized by month's end, the state's land conservation fund, Florida Forever, will pay $24.4-million; Swiftmud will provide $24.4-million; and Polk County will spend $5-million.

Joni James can be reached at 850224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com