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Water managers, Hillsborough at odds over selling preserve land

TAMPA — More than 170 acres of Hillsborough County conservation land, purchased in part with county taxpayers’ dollars, are on the verge of being declared “surplus” and eligible for sale or trade by state water authorities.

The land was identified as surplus in a recent assessment by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Officials at the district, commonly known as Swiftmud, said the land does not meet the agency’s core missions of flood control, water quality, water supply and natural systems.

Though the county paid half the purchase price for the four parcels and also manages them, Swiftmud holds title to the land. Under a policy adopted in February by its governing board, the district can sell, exchange or transfer any properties determined to be surplus in assessments conducted every two years.

Hillsborough parks and recreation officials are contesting the decision, claiming the parcels have other redeeming environmental features that argue for preservation in their natural state.

“We look at whether natural systems are threatened and endangered species are on the land,” said Forest Turbiville, interim director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.

“From an environmental standpoint,” Turbiville said, “we just want to make sure sites with either unique environmental characteristics or that serve functions such as parking areas for horse trails … those land are continuously preserved.”

County and Swiftmud officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the land in question. Michael Babb, chairman of the Swiftmud board, said he thinks some kind of compromise can be worked out.