Cone Ranch one step closer to being safe from Hillsborough County Commissioners

The backing out of FCEG left the panel basically two choices: leave the land as is under the Water Utility or recommend that the BOCC transfer the land to ELAPP, the county's own land buying program. ELAPP was recently overwhelmingly approved by voters and the Cone Ranch recently received the highest ranking from ELAPP in part because of the latest threats from the BOCC to sell it to private investors/donors.

Seem like a no-brainer for the panel to finally wrap this up? Well, first one would have to be familiar with Robert's Rules of Order but Chair Heidi McCree seemed confused throughout the meeting on this leaving much of the well informed audience stunned at the cluster we were witnessing (and paying for). Do substitute motions take priority over initial motions, do votes that you took by mistake count? One of the only luxuries you can't buy in life is time so to see more of mine pissed away on this Cone Ranch scheme because they couldn't decide if the first or the substitute motion was the one on the floor was irritating to say the least.  Why was this fumble so important? Because the original motion (made by Rosanne Clementi and seconded by wetlands hater Hugh Gramling) which completely cut out ELAPP was still on the floor even though Dee Layne had made a substitute motion to recommend turning the land over to ELAPP which was seconded by Vivienne Handy. According to the rules the substitute motion should be voted on first but it seemed like Ms. McCree was entertaining the first motion instead. Luckily they did allow public comment before the vote and our own George Niemann was the one that saved that substitute motion and set the record straight. And if you think I am being a little hard on a volunteer Chair then you should know that Ms. Heidi McCree was once the Chair of Swiftmud so one would think she would know better. Not to mention my usually sunny personality had taken a hit since I didn't get breakfast.

There was also some debate about when public comment was to be heard. At prior C.R.A.P. meetings the public was given the opportunity to speak after the agenda items. This is reversed from the usual protocol where even the BOCC feigns interest and lets the public (at least some of them) speak before they vote on an item. Since it was a possibility that the C.R.A.P. would actually vote on something during Monday's meeting, the citizens should have been heard in advance and one panel member brought this up and it was eventually granted. THANK YOU MS. HANDY!

Once again citizen after citizen made the case to transfer the land to ELAPP. Kent Bailey brought up the fact that ELAPP got more than double the votes in the last election than any Commissioner except Kevin Beckner! Mariella Smith, who is on the ELAPP committee, explained how ELAPP works and how they buy and restore land.  Bev Griffiths, Chair of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club, gave the panel a history lesson on preserving land and urged the board to turn the land over to ELAPP.  Mr. Nicholson of Sun City Center cited a book called Collapse and explained how the author studied failed societies and that two of the main causes of this demise was deforestation and damage of the water supply. Elizabeth Belcher noted the insanity of a government entity having to pay a huge amount of money for a piece of land they apparently acquired for a dollar and told the committee to stop dithering! She also raised the issue of a for profit creating a non-profit to avoid competitive bidding. Alligator Bob, my newest hero, spelled out the importance of protecting our natural resources noting he has fought three battles to protect Cone Ranch. Terry Flott, Chair of U-CAN said it was the possibility of that water consolidation that made her decide to urge the board to transfer the Cone Ranch property over to ELAPP since we are in danger of losing a lot of land. Barbara Dowling told the board we didn't need to reinvent the wheel that we already had a process called ELAPP, "let's use it" and she noted that Keystone Civic Association was in support of ELAPP. Pam Clouston, President of R-LAND noted that FCEG might be off the table  but that citizens haven't withdrawn and ELAPP hasn't withdrawn and noted that the citizens want ELAPP to preserve this land.

I urged the panel to recommend the transfer to ELAPP because leaving it with the water utility would leave open the possibility that we would have to go through this all again if Hagan got another harebrained idea like this one from FCEG or if Commissioner Norman decided to try for another vanity park out on Cone Ranch like his failed Championship Park idea (how much did that study cost us?) I told them we couldn't afford it because well, we really can't afford it! I did a public records request to Edith Stewart after the last meeting to see what this volunteer panel is costing us in staff time from every dept involved (best I can tell there are eleven governmental depts/agencies involved in this thing) and the only one I have heard from is the EPC. Their costs to us the taxpayers for staff time associated with the panel for the first five meetings (not including this last meeting) is $2,588.43 (according to my calculations). And there are ten more agencies/depts that have not submitted their figures yet, one of those being the County Attorney's office and we know they are expensive and even give themselves raises!

So while Cone Ranch should have been safe under the water utility because it was preserved, publicly owned and NOT FOR SALE) the truth is it wasn't safe from our BOCC. Our own CL contributor George Niemann got the last word as he presented the C.R.A.P. with a copy of Robert's Rules of Order that he obtained during the meeting. He noted that his first stop to find the rules was the Chair of the BOCC, Ken Hagan's office to get a copy and guess what? They didn't have one. Enough said! No wonder the Hagan can't even seem to figure out how to run public comment during BOCC meetings.

While I have criticized the EPC in the past on other issues I have to give them credit on their letter to the panel recommending that this land go to ELAPP which was attached to Monday's agenda.

Dee Layne was the maker of that substitute motion and after much debate it passed recommending the board shift control of Cone Ranch to ELAPP! The only no vote? You guessed it wetlands hater Hugh Gramling that I had my concerns about in the first place mentioned here in this post.

To make a very long story short, the BOCC opened up this can of worms and the outraged citizens are out in force to make sure they choke down every last worm! The writing was on the wall and my guess is that FCEG can at least read. With elections coming up for many of these Commissioners doing something that the public is so vehemently against would mean certain political fallout. I suspect maybe FCEG smelled a loss and saw an open door and took it, and at the same time let Commissioners off the hook on this one.

You would think the bashing some of these same Commissioners took from the community over their wetlands killing idea a few years ago would still be fresh in their minds but in a county where they think it is OK to let insurance pay for the sexual harasser among them anything is possible. That is why it is important for the public to show up in support of the ELAPP transfer when this comes before the BOCC (yes, they get the final vote on saving the land from themselves) and that looks to be at the Dec 2nd meeting according to this article.

Graphic credit: George Niemann

I attended what I hope was the last meeting of the Cone Ranch Advisory Panel (not so affectionately known as C.R.A.P. by some activists) Monday morning. Recall the panel was set up by our County Commission ( BOCC ) at the request of Chairman Ken Hagan to recommend how best to preserve Cone Ranch and save it from development ( by entertaining the notion of  letting brokers sell it to private investors so they could subdivide it and develop it into six smaller parcels) uh-huh. In case you are just tuning in, Cone Ranch was already owned by the public (under the water utility) and it is already listed on our Comprehensive Plan as PRESERVATION (details, details). Those pitching the idea to Hagan and the rest of the BOCC were big time Republican donors (uh-huh).

After five meetings of the panel, the citizens and even some of the panelists were calling bullshit on this idea. The brokers (FCEG) abrubtly exited stage right citing what appears to be a water grab by Commissioner Jim Norman but let's save that potential scandal for another day.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.