Proposed solar farm sparks controversy

An open house to preview a proposed solar farm in northeast Pasco County drew an impassioned crowd of residents who mostly panned the project.

Tampa Electric, known as TECO, is seeking a special exception permit to build the solar farm on about 350 acres, off Blanton Road in Dade City.

The first public hearing for the project will be with the Pasco County Planning Commission at a future date.

The solar farm, if built, would produce about 55 megawatts of renewable energy. The project represents a $75 million investment from TECO. It is part of the electric company’s master plan to expand its use of solar power.

Tampa Electric operates a solar farm at Big Bend at Apollo Beach, in Hillsborough County. The same technology will be used at a proposed solar farm in Pasco County, if approved.
(Courtesy of Tampa Electric)

By 2021, TECO anticipates investing $850 million in 10 solar projects that are expected to generate energy for about 100,000 homes.

About 120 residents attended TECO’s open house on March 8 at Pasco-Hernando State College, outside Dade City.

The electric company planned the event as a one-on-one exchange between residents and its employees, who stood next to poster boards ready to explain the project.

Midway through the event, however, resident Dot Ward climbed aboard a chair with a plea.

“I suggest we all leave and tell the county we aren’t happy,” she said.

Most appeared to share her opposition to the project, and disappointment with TECO’s event.

“This is the jewel in the crown of Pasco County,” said Pat Weaver, in describing the aesthetics and scenic views on what could become a solar farm.

“This is agriculturally zoned out here,” said Weaver, who is a former Dade City mayor. “Solar is not agriculture. It’s industrial. This is not something you can grow.”

However, Sharon Hanna-West is concerned about future development proposals, if the solar farm is rejected.

She hasn’t decided if she is for or against the solar farm, and she wants more information. She worked with other residents on the Northeast Rural Protection Overlay District.

The Pasco County Commission adopted the district in 2016 as part of the county’s long-range land use plan.

It was a victory for residents, Hanna-West said.

But, she said, “I want ya’ll to think long and hard about this blanket opposition. So, be careful what you hope.”

The solar farm would be built on two sides of Blanton Road, on the southeast corner of Blanton and Frazee Hill Road; and, on the northwest corner of Blanton and Platt Road. The site also is to the north and west of Pasco-Hernando State College’s East Campus.

About 250 acres are owned by State Sen. Wilton Simpson and his wife, Kathryn Simpson. The couple bought the property from Wells Fargo Bank in 2016 for an estimated $1.5 million.

Additional acreage is owned by James Gross & Ranch Inc., according to county records.

Many expressed concerns about noise and loss of property values.

About 464,000 panels would be installed. TECO officials said the panels swivel and follow the sun’s direction, which allows for better energy collection.

In height, the project is equivalent to a one-story structure, they said. They also said noise level is “imperceptible.”

Alma Coston, who lives near the site, was skeptical.

“They say it doesn’t make any noise. That’s a bunch of hooey,” she said.

She said people enjoy the scenic views and rolling hills.

“We’re on one of the highest ridges in Florida,” said Coston.

The regulations set out for the overlay district govern residential development of three houses or more. It also restricts mining operations or other projects that tear up hillsides or impair vistas. Portions of some roads, including State Road 52, Bellamy Brothers Boulevard, Trilby Road and Blanton are designated as “rural-scenic.”

New development isn’t prohibited but would need to meet certain standards, including buffering.

“This (solar farm) isn’t going to protect our view shed,” said Jill Yelverton, who lives directly across from the site.

She also worries about a bald eagle’s nest, located in the southeast corner of the property near Ramsey Road and Blanton. She said she has seen eaglets.

TECO officials said the nest will be protected. Design plans include a 660-foot radius as a buffer. There are no plans to ever develop that area of the property, they said.

Area residents in the past have opposed two housing developments at the site – Berry Hill Estates and College Hill.

“We don’t mind residential, at least, if it’s on one, five or 10 acres,” Yelverton said. “That would be acceptable.”

That’s the current housing pattern in the area, she said.

For more information about TECO’s proposal, visit TampaElectric.com.

Published March 21, 2018

Comments

  1. Has anyone talked about the issue of Senator Wilton Simpson buying this land ~2 years ago and now selling it to TECO at a profit? Is this even legal? Is this not the very definition of corruption in our government? How it is that these things are so closely related to each other (Sen Wilton;s land purchase and then a solar farm deal)
    I am looking for answers on this and want to know how this came about. Why is this not on Pam Bondi’s radar?

  2. Craig W Ratcliff says:

    You know, I have been to all of the meetings and no one mentioned his name. So Tuesday I attended the third meeting and called him out.
    They tried to stop me from talking! I just plowed through.

    Incredible corruption.

    PS……PS…he got $101, 000 dollars from TECO when they fought rooftop solar two years ago…

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