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Agency still wants Connerton land

Swiftmud has fallen short so far in its effort to buy the property, where the Conner family has planned a 15,000-home development.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


LAND O'LAKES -- Doug Conner has labored for years to fulfill his dream of turning his family's central Pasco County ranch into a town of 15,000 homes.

But in the face of persistent concerns about the proposed development's threat to wetlands, the Southwest Florida Water Management District still is considering trying to buy the ranch.

It has been three months since the Conner family rejected Swiftmud's last multimillion-dollar offer to buy its 8,000 acres between State Road 52, U.S. 41 and Ehren Cutoff.

"We gave Mr. Conner an offer and he hasn't countered with his own offer. We'd still like to hear from Mr. Conner," said Fritz Musselmann, Swiftmud's director of land resources.

Conner said he remains wedded to his development, a massive "new town development" to be built over several decades. Plans call for more than 15,000 homes surrounding a self-sufficient city center of schools, parks and stores.

"I have invested four years in this thing. I'm very excited about it. I think it's unique," he said.

But Conner said his family hasn't rejected selling the ranch to Swiftmud, assuming the price were fat enough. Although neither side would confirm a price, Conner said even $10-million is too low.

To buy the ranch, Swiftmud could tap the millions of dollars it gets from the state's Save Our Rivers trust fund.

"I have told them their offer was too low," Conner said. "But I didn't close the door on them or anything."

Swiftmud proposed buying the Conner ranch in 1998, part of a larger 30,000 acres to 40,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land it wants to acquire in Pasco.

Connerton is particularly valuable because it is sandwiched between the Cypress Creek and Cross Bar well fields. Musselmann fears filling the land with asphalt and concrete would block rainwater from recharging the water supply.

Acquiring Connerton would be akin to Swiftmud's 1996 purchase of the Serenova Property, 6,800 acres just west of the Suncoast Parkway near Moon Lake. The agency paid $18-million for the land, which developers had planned to fill with thousands of homes.

Pasco officials have generally opposed Swiftmud's designs on Connerton, fearing the land's preservation would weaken the county's future tax base. Musselmann said a solution would be for Swiftmud to resell the land on the condition that the buyer yield his development rights.

"That way the land would stay on the tax rolls," Musselmann said.

After three years of governmental scrutiny of Connerton, county commissioners have scheduled a June 13 hearing to decide whether to grant the development order Conner needs to start the bulldozers.

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