Hillsborough County today set aside the largest piece of land in the history of the county's conservation program.
County commissioners voted 6-1 to transfer the 12,800-acre Cone Ranch from the county water department into its Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program or ELAPP.
Commissioners made the move after the county's debt advisor told them the transfer could be accomplished without hurting the county's AAA bond rating or raising water rates.
The move means the land in far northwest Hillsborough will be protected from development in perpetuity.
"I'm ecstatic," said Jan Smith, chair of the county's ELAPP general committee. "I think the county commission proved today it truly is their intention to preserve this land for ELAPP."
Mike Merrill, the county's administrator for commerce and utilities, said the county's bond insurers had no objection to the transfer. The insurance company's attorneys still have to approve the transfer, but Merrill said he expected that any day.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham vote no, saying he wanted to get written confirmation that the bond insurer's attorneys say the deal is OK.
However, credit rating agencies suggested that ELAPP pay the water department the land's $12 million "book value." That's the amount that the water department paid for the property in 1991.
ELAPP has $35 million left from a $52 million bond issue sold last month. The county has already used $20 million of the issue to buy land in northwest Hillsborough. Merrill said the county could also borrow the $12 million over five years at a low interest rate.
The conservation program gets its money from a small property tax that voters reapproved last November.
Although the land is owned by Hillsborough County, it is listed as an asset of the county Water Resource Services Department. The water department operates like a separate business, and gets its funding from ratepayers, not taxes.
Merrill has drawn criticism from environmental bloggers for insisting that water department bond covenants require that the land be sold at fair market value. That could have raised the price of the ranch as high as $50 million, although no recent appraisals have been done. The conservation program has just $35 million from a recent bond issue to buy land.
Earlier this month, Merrill told the ELAPP general committee he had come up with two options to move the ranch into the conservation program without paying fair market value. One option was asking the company that insures the water department's bonds to agree to forego the fair market value provision. Merrill said at the time he was not optimistic the company would agree.
The other option Merrill presented to the ELAPP board and county commissioners today, was to wait five years until the water department's bonds were paid off. In the meantime, the water department could put a provision in an upcoming $125 million bond issue that says Cone Ranch would not be considered an asset.
But the agreement by bond insurers to forego the fair market provision allowed the commission to transfer the land today.