By Julia Ferrante The Tampa Tribune
TALLAHASSEE – A delegation of Pasco County legislators and officials made a pitch to Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday morning to keep the Cross Bar Ranch on Florida Forever’s “A” list for acquisition.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who organized the meeting, said the governor seemed “very receptive” to lending his support to Pasco officials so they can buy the 12,500-acre ranch in central Pasco from its current owner, Pinellas County Utilities, and dedicate it to permanent conservation.
The proposal received high marks from Florida Forever’s Acquisition and Restoration Council last year. The Florida Cabinet is set to consider whether to keep Cross Bar on the acquisition list at a hearing next month.
Local leaders agree the purchase will require a combination of state and local funding, partnerships with state agencies and likely a long-term loan from Pinellas County. If the Cabinet endorses the deal, appraisals will be ordered, and the deal-making will begin.
“We talked about the importance of keeping it out of hands that would turn it into development,” Fasano said. “Let’s keep it the way it is so people can enjoy it for future generations. … I was pleased by the governor’s receptiveness.”
Crist, who had read about the ranch in local newspapers, asked Fasano about it during a recent bus tour on his “Yes on 1” property tax amendment campaign, the senator said.
“He brought it up,” Fasano said. “He said, ‘I hear there’s some property in Pasco we need to protect.”
Wednesday’s delegation included state Rep. Will Wetherford, R-Wesley Chapel; Pasco County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader; County Administrator John Gallagher; and lobbyists for Pasco and Pinellas.
Pinellas officials purchased the ranch as a well field during the height of the regional “water wars,” when Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and their cities were competing for water resources. The ranch still is a major water source for the region, but pumping has been greatly reduced, and it now is controlled by the regional authority Tampa Bay Water.
Schrader also said the governor was supportive of the project.
“A lot of details still need to be finalized,” he said. “We wanted to ask for his support to make sure we stay on the A list for funds. We extended the invitation to him to visit the ranch, and we hope he does. The property sells itself. We hope he develops the same passion we have for preserving it to keep it in public ownership.”
The local delegation also planned to meet with Crist’s Cabinet aides Wednesday. The group plans to travel to Tallahassee again next month to make a formal presentation to the Cabinet.
In addition to Florida Forever funding, Pasco is counting on Penny for Pasco sales tax revenue, support from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and possibly a special state appropriation to close the deal, Schrader said.
“We will have to come to an agreement and then figure out whether we need a special appropriation,” Schrader said. Crist “is going to let us go through that process.”
Lobbyist Pete Dunbar represented Pinellas County in the meeting Wednesday. Pinellas County Utilities Director Pick Talley, who has fostered preservation efforts on the Cross Bar Ranch, said he plans to attend the Cabinet meetings in February.
Dunbar “is helping to put together a funding package to help Pasco buy it and us sell it,” Talley said.
Cross Bar is among more than 100 projects on the Florida Forever list comprising 2 million acres. Those on the “A” list have a higher priority for funding than those on a “B” list.
Appraisals have not been done recently on Cross Bar, but the Pasco property appraiser has the land assessed at $176 million. Assessments typically are less than market value.
Pinellas County Utilities officials say they no longer need a well field outside their borders. They do, however, need money to expand the utility, and the Cross Bar sale could offset those costs.
In addition to the well fields, Cross Bar is a haven for endangered and threatened wildlife, such as Florida scrub jays, gopher tortoises and burrowing owls. The land also includes extensive pine forests, which produce pine needles for mulch. The mulch business has yielded about $500,000 per year to help sustain the ranch financially.