Ft. King ranch land too costly for conservation program

A volunteer advisory committee had recommended that 17 parcels of the former Ft. King Ranch be added to a list of conservation lands worthy of purchase by Pasco County.

But, the Pasco County Commission balked at the potentially pricey cost of buying nearly 3,600 acres, and voted against the committee’s wishes.

The property, owned by the limited liability partnership of Secret Promise, is situated off State Road 52, near the Ehren Cutoff. It stretches from the northern boundary of Cypress Creek to the Crossbar Wellfield, near Bellamy Brothers Boulevard.

Florida Estates Winery is located on land offered to Pasco County for its conservation lands’ program. (Kathy Steele)

“That’s a very, very large purchase,” said Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore. “It could crush future projects. It’s almost to the point if we add this, we can’t add anything else.”

Currently, the county’s ELAMP, or Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program, has nine properties under review for purchase. The program’s budget has a balance of about $27 million from the Penny for Pasco program.

The total value of land and buildings for the 17 parcels adds up to about $14.3 million, according to the Pasco County Property Appraiser’s valuations.

The county has more pressing needs than buying land of which only 20 percent is environmentally sensitive, said Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley.

“I would rather see that money go to properties in other parts of our county that actually helps flooded areas, and helps a lot of citizens,” he said.

The late Dr. Crayton Pruitt, a noted heart surgeon from St. Petersburg bought the property in 1997 for about $3.1 million.

Peter Wallace, registered agent for Secret Promise, made an offer to sell the land to the county.

The 11-member advisory committee took up the matter last summer and requested an evaluation of the property.

Committee members in November voted to recommend its placement on the ELAMP list, and for a negotiated deal to buy part or all of the property.

The county would be able to buy the land outright or buy only the development rights.

The site meets the definition of agricultural reserve land, and includes pastures, wetlands, pine flatwoods, freshwater marshes, and wildlife habitats.

On a graded scale, it earned 52 out of 80 points, according to the evaluation report.

Moore pressed for an opinion from Keith Wiley, the county’s interim director for parks, recreation and natural resources department.

“I always maintain my neutrality,” Wiley said. But, he added, “At the least, it’s one of our lower priorities.”

Years ago, the land was re-zoned for future development of single-family homes and retail, with about 2,000 acres left as open space.

Currently, there are three small houses on site, as well as a working cattle barn and two workshops.

Florida Estates Winery also is located on site.

Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey wondered if the winery owners would want to remain. She also had concerns about the county’s future plans to build a road through the property.

“I want to be real cognizant of the road system,” she said.

If the property were put on the county’s waiting list, Starkey said that didn’t mean the county had to purchase it.

“The devil is in the details of the deal,” she said.

After the vote to keep Secret Promise off the list, Oakley left the door open for reconsideration.

He asked Wiley to come back with new information, if it puts the land higher on the ranking scale.

Published January 31, 2018

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