CLEARWATER — Pinellas County purchased the Cross Bar Ranch in central Pasco County 37 years ago during the so-called “water wars,” when Tampa Bay area governments were scrambling to secure future water supplies for their residents.
Seventeen wells were dug on the former cattle pasture and citrus grove. At their peak, the wells pumped 30 million gallons of water per day from the Floridan aquifer.
Now, the wells are owned by Tampa Bay Water, and their importance to the region’s water supply has decreased, as the agency relies more on rivers, reservoirs and other water sources than well fields.
Nonetheless, a majority of Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday balked at a request from Pasco County, which wants to buy the ranch and the neighboring Al Bar Ranch and link them through a series of trails to other nature preserves and promote ecotourism.
Selling the land, which covers 12,400 acres between the two ranches, would make it impossible for Pinellas County to opt out of Tampa Bay Water in the future, commissioners said. The regional authority, formed in 1998, also provides drinking water for Hillsborough, Pasco and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa, and New Port Richey.
“This is our lifeline, our drinking water,” said Commissioner Norm Roche. “It’s incumbent upon us to preserve that option for future generations.”
Commissioners also questioned the wisdom of selling the ranch at a time when land prices are rising and they could realize a bigger return by waiting. The county also turns a modest profit from harvesting a pine tree farming operation begun in 1993.
Only commissioners Ken Welch and Susan Latvala expressed support for potentially selling Pinellas’ land in Pasco.
Welch said the county had accomplished its goals in buying Cross Bar and, later, neighboring Al Bar Ranch and that Pasco leaders were merely trying to assert home rule.
“If another county owned a chuck of land in Pinellas County we would be trying to acquire it,” he said.
With more than 6,000 acres of pristine wetlands, lakes and wildlife habitat, the land offers precious habitat for 19 listed species of concern, including the Florida sandhill crane, the Florida burrowing owl and gopher tortoises.
The land is also home to scrub jays and southern kestrels, leading the Audubon Society in 2000 to designate it as an important bird area.
The county offsets some of the cost of maintaining the property through a 4,800-acre forestry program growing slash and long-leaf pines.
Regular audits by the Florida Inspector General found that, over a 12-year period ending in 2012, expenses at the ranch outweighed revenue by $1.1 million.
With about 400 acres of pine trees now being harvested each year, the property turned a profit of $343,000 last year and is on pace to at least equal that this year.
Located just north of State Road 52 and U.S. 41, Cross Bar is about a mile south of the Hernando County line and a 60-mile drive from Clearwater. Its visitors center, opened in 2003, provides classroom space for 2,700 Pasco seventh-graders every year, but it is not a venue for Pinellas County school field trips.
Few Pinellas residents visit there, said Commissioner Susan Latvala. The county would be better served spending money from the sale on its own preserves, including Brooker Creek, she said.
“Pasco County has a burr under their saddle because we own this beautiful piece of prime real estate and wildlife habitat in the center of their county,” Latvala said. “It doesn’t serve a purpose for our citizens, and yet we’ve spent all this effort to make it what it is.”
The county could draw up an agreement that would give Pasco the first right of refusal should Pinellas ever decide to sell the land, Commissioner Karen Seel said. That would give Pasco officials reassurance that Pinellas would not sell it to developers should the real estate market heat up again, she said.
Commissioners decided they should tour the ranch properties in Pasco and compare them to Pinellas preserves before making a final decision on selling the land.
Pinellas County paid $11.1 million for the two ranches. No price has been set for any sale. The land would have to be appraised before any negotiations, County Administrator Bob LaSala said.
The land is valued at $57 million by the Pasco County Property Appraiser, according to the state audit. Pasco County voters recently extended the Penny for Pasco tax that could be used to buy the land.
Pasco commissioners were not present at Tuesday’s meeting, which coincided with one of their own.
If the two counties can’t work out a deal, Pasco County leaders may end up committing their Penny for Pasco funds to other projects, Pasco County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said.
“The window of opportunity to structure a deal with Pasco County may close,” he said.