Land makes conservation 'A list'

Funding to buy the Cross Bar/Al Bar Ranch parcel from Pinellas is now a priority in Pasco.

By JODIE TILLMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 15, 2007

Efforts to preserve 12,500 acres in fast-growing Central Pasco got a major boost Friday when state officials added the property to a list of about 50 priority conservation projects.

At least for now, Cross Bar/Al Bar Ranch's inclusion on the "A list" is mostly symbolic.

That's because 21 higher ranked projects were selected to compete for a relatively small amount of money - roughly $25-million - left in the Florida Forever program, the state land acquisition program set to expire in 2010.

Even so, County Administrator John Gallagher, who attended Friday's meeting of Florida Forever's Acquisition and Restoration Council, said he was heartened by the Pasco property's inclusion on the priority list.

Pasco could use the wait to work on a more detailed plan for acquiring and conserving the property, he said. No sales price has been floated, but the county valued the land - bordered by U.S. 41, State Road 52 and the Suncoast Parkway - at $177-million in its state application.

"It's excellent news," he said. "There's a lot of work we need to do in the next year."

Getting the endorsement of the Florida Forever program is an important step in legislative attempts to secure funding for the project, said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Land O'Lakes.

Despite the uncertain state financial climate, Weatherford said he and others in Pasco's legislative delegation will make funding the purchase a priority in the next two years. The state has traditionally spent about $300-million a year in land acquisition.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get this thing funded as quickly as possible," said Weatherford. "It's a gem, and we want to protect it."

Pinellas County owns the land, which it bought in pieces throughout the 1970s and 1980s for future water needs. But the creation of the regional Tampa Bay Water Authority brought an end to county water wars, and Pinellas no longer needsthe property.

Pinellas has been getting calls from interested developers but has been working with Pasco on putting together a deal. "Pinellas has a strong desire to keep it in public ownership,"said Gallagher.

The Cross Bar portion of the property - about 8,000 acres - is home to 17 wellhead sites owned by Tampa Bay Water Authority. Pinellas acquired the Al Bar Ranch portion of the property later to help buffer the wellfield area.

The property could be bought in phases. If that is the choice, then the Al Bar Ranch should be the first priority for state funding, says a staff report prepared for the council. That's because it is a more important habitat for the federally-protected Florida scrub jay and is less disturbed overall than the CrossBar section.

The report suggested that the Cross Bar portion could be bought with funds from local and regional programs.

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said "A list" projects like Cross Bar that don't get Florida Forever money before it expires will be top candidates for funding from a successor program.

The priority list was narrowed to about 50 from roughly 100 projects. Some of the projects have been on the listfor decades.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or 727 869-6247.

Fast facts

In the works

What is it: Nearly 12,500 acres of undeveloped land in north-central Pasco County owned by Pinellas County.

Who wants it: Pasco County wants to preserve the property in an area with a lot of growth pressures

What's there now: It has an active wellfield, pastures for cattle grazing and an educational center. Over half of the property is planted pines and improved pastures. Pinellas has a profitable pine-straw operation on the property.

Wildlife: Florida scrub jay, tricolored heron, sandhill crane, round-tailed muskrat, gopher tortoise, alligators

What's next: In February, the "A-list" of proposed preservation projects goes to the governor's office for approval. Pasco works on its plan and looks for and waits on money to buy the property.