County and state team up on land deal

Pasco County and the state of Florida have teamed up on a $6 million land deal to designate a large swath of a former cattle ranch in Land O’ Lakes as a conservation easement.

The county and the state each will pay $3 million for two parcels totaling nearly 620 acres, located west of Old Pasco Road about a half-mile south of State Road 52.

Pasco County Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey held out on a land deal to be sure that a swath of land could possibly be used as the right-of-way for a planned trail that will generally follow the old Orange Belt Rail Line. (File Photo)

Pasco County Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey held out on a land deal to be sure that a swath of land could possibly be used as the right-of-way for a planned trail that will generally follow the old Orange Belt Rail Line.
(File Photo)

The purchase is an acquisition for the county’s Environmental Lands and Acquisition Management Program, also known as ELAMP. That program is partially funded with revenues from the Penny for Pasco program.

There’s a provision in the deal that could result in a portion of the northern half of the site being used as the right-of-way for a planned trail system that generally will follow along the former Orange Belt Rail Line.

Pasco County Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey persuaded commissioners to postpone a vote on the contract until after their lunch break at the March 8 meeting in Dade City. She wanted to add language to the contract that would clear the way to negotiate the trail’s easement and public access through the site.

Without that provision, Starkey said the county could be forced to eventually negotiate a separate, costly deal to buy privately owned land for the trail.

“This is one of our most important trails in the county,” Starkey said. “We need to be able to build a trail there.  This should have been part of the discussion before it was brought to us.”

The initial deal struck between sellers, the state and the county didn’t allow public access.

Four generations of the McKendree family operated the cattle farm. Sellers of the conservation easement are Neil Mathis and Christine Phillips.

Negotiations took about two years for an agreement that is the first partnership between Pasco and the state to buy conservation land. The state usually strikes such deals with federal agencies, said Keith Wiley, the county’s natural resources manager.

Members of the Florida Cabinet are scheduled to approve the deal on March 29.

With time a factor, Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader didn’t want to continue the vote to the next commission meeting. “I don’t want to jeopardize the state’s participation. I’m confident we’ll secure this (easement). This is a win-win for everyone,” he said.

But, after a representative for the property sellers agreed to the contract’s new stipulation, commissioners gave their approval to a revised agreement.

The exact route of the trail isn’t determined, but it generally will run diagonally across the county from Lacoochee through Land O’ Lakes to Odessa.

The county owns portions of the rights-of-way for the trail along Old Pasco Road and State Road 52, near the conservation easement site, according to Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker.

The Florida Department of Transportation also is building a bridge as part of its widening and realignment project along Interstate 75 and State Road 52. State officials said there would be an underpass below the bridge for the county to build a trail connector.

Starkey envisions the trail as a redevelopment tool for the Land O’ Lakes area, similar to a walking and bicycle trail established through Dunedin in Pinellas County.

“It has great potential to be an economic draw in Land O’ Lakes,” she said.

Published March 23, 2016

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