Buying the ranch

To Orange County Commissioner Clarence Hoenstine, buying the Holland Ranch is a no-brainer: An expenditure of $7.5 million, split between the county and the St. Johns River Water Management District, would preserve 5,200 acres around the ecologically fragile headwaters of the Econlock-hatchee River.

Orange has committed its half of the money, but the water district has yet to commit, fretting about a $250,000 discrepancy in the land's appraised value. The Orlando Sentinel's editorial page, which has lobbied repeatedly for the deal, assailed water-district managers: "Few tracts of land Ã? have more environmental value -- for wildlife or flood protection," it asserted. "Buying the land should be a top priority -- before it is sold to the highest bidder and razed for even more homes."

That's a bit misleading. The county and the water district would not be purchasing the whole ranch -- or even the most environmentally sensitive portion of the property. Instead, they would buy only the eastern tract, 2,600 acres of mostly pasture. The rest, including the important headwaters, would stay with landowner Steve Holland.

Even some longtime Econ advocates say the county is getting duped. The land being sold is east of the Econ, which means it's out of the county's urban-service area and less likely to be developed. Holland, meanwhile, will use the property he retains -- mostly swampy wetlands that are difficult to develop because of high costs and strict county rules -- for a "mitigation bank." Land developers would have to buy property (which they could not build on) from Holland's bank to replace wetlands they bulldoze elsewhere in the Econ basin.

According to Ken Bosserman, an environmentally active real-estate agent, Orange County is trying to preserve unbuildable land while missing the true treasure -- and perhaps encouraging development in other fragile ecosystems in the process. What's more, if the headwaters remain in private hands, biologists and other researchers aren't guaranteed access to the many native species that call the area home.

Hoenstine counters that the eastern tract is valuable because two Econ tributaries run through it. "It could be developed," he says. "A lot of land outside the urban-service area has been `approved`." He argues that the deal would keep the entire ranch development-free forever. Water managers and county officials tried repeatedly to buy the entire property but were never able to meet Holland's $15 million price.

Under the current contract, which expires in mid-April, Holland would have five years to form the mitigation bank. If he decides against it, the county could buy the headwaters -- assuming it has enough money. Hoenstine concedes that might be a problem. Most neighboring counties have resources dedicated for the purchase of conservation land, but Orange doesn't. Though past Chairman Linda Chapin created a land-preservation fund from the general budget, it has dried up since she left office.

Hoenstine wants to change that. He is proposing a countywide referendum asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax for land preservation. The tax would mean roughly $125 million a year, making the purchase of the entirety of Holland's Ranch easy. Moreover, the county would then be able to compete for up to $300 million in Florida Forever matching funds.

Whatever the outcome of the current Holland's ranch offer, Hoenstine wants the proposed tax on the ballot as early as September. However, that's not likely. The county school board's beleaguered sales-tax vote is also scheduled for that month, and it's doubtful the commission (which must approve any measure to go on the ballot) would pit the two against each other.

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