Approval recommended for TECO solar farm

Opponents are disappointed

A proposed solar farm in northeast Pasco County cleared the first hurdle needed for approval — despite impassioned pleas and even tears from area residents who oppose it.

The Pasco County Planning Commission recently voted 6-3 to recommend approval of the project to the Pasco County Commission, which has the final say.

Tampa Electric Company, or TECO, needs a special exception permit to build the solar farm on about 350 acres on two sides of Blanton Road. Portions of the site are bordered by Frazee Hill and Platt roads. The site is north and west of Pasco-Hernando State College’s East Campus.

It’s not clear when the county commissioners will take up the issue.

There is a 30-day appeal period for challenges to be filed against the planning commission’s decision.

Additional delays would come if an appeal is filed.

Nearly 240 people crowded into West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey on April 9 for a five-hour public hearing on the proposed project.

Tampa Electric Company operates a solar farm in Big Bend. (File)

Opponents objected to the loss of unique scenic views in a gateway area into Dade City, which is known for its rolling hills.

“This is by no means something that fits in this area,” said Gregory Ostovich, who lives near the proposed site.

“This is clean energy,” he said. “However, there is a term called visual pollution. This is spewing huge amounts of visual pollution in our area that trees will not hide, shrubs will not hide.”

About 250 acres of the proposed solar farm site are owned by State Sen. Wilton Simpson and his wife, Kathryn Simpson. Additional acreage is owned by James Gross & Ranch Inc., according to county records.

If built, TECO officials propose investing about $75 million and anticipate production of about 53 megawatts of power. About 464,000 photovoltaic panels would be installed that would track the sun daily from east to west, and feed power to TECO’s electric grid.

Over the next decade, TECO plans to invest $850 million in 10 solar projects that would provide energy to about 100,000 homes in Florida.

The electric company has about 20,000 customers in Pasco County, but company officials said the solar farm’s energy production would be shared by all of TECO’s service-area customers.

Consultants and TECO officials laid out a site plan that they said would produce clean energy and protect wildlife.

They provided renderings of a buffer of trees and shrubs along the roadway that would largely block views of the panels, and maintain Dade City’s rural character. They also emphasized cost efficiencies of solar compared to other fuels.

“Photovoltaic is going to be a good neighbor,” said Mark Ward, TECO’s director of renewables.

The project had some supporters at the hearing, including Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida.

Lee said TECO has been generous in protecting wetlands and creating a 660-foot buffer zone for an eagle’s nest in the southeast corner of the site.

In testimony during the hearing, a TECO representative committed to keeping that corner undeveloped “in perpetuity.”

“I understand that neighbors would like things to remain the same,” Audubon’s Lee said. “Renewable energy is important. We believe it is a good site. We believe the impacts have been well taken care of. We think the applicants have done an exemplary job of setting aside an area (for an eagle’s nest). This is not normally what we see.”

Landowners who would sell to TECO, if the project is approved, also supported it.

Members of the Jordan family, which harvested citrus groves for decades, described years of struggle to hold onto their way of life. But, the citrus greening disease has devastated Florida’s citrus industry, they said.

“It is not viable,” said Alice Jordan. “We can’t do it anymore, folks.”

But, opponents kept coming back to what they and Dade City would lose.

Laura Myers described the beautiful views she and her family had in a new home they bought on top of the hill overlooking the solar farm site.

“That’s not going to be covered by their buffering,” she said. “Instead of God’s sunrise, we are going to be looking at solar panels.”

Property owner Gordon Comer and his attorney, Gordon Schiff, contend the project doesn’t meet the county’s land use regulations including a northeast rural protection plan.

Comer said he was a real estate developer with 20 years of experience in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties.

“I am not opposed to appropriate development moving in,” he said. But, the solar project, he added, would substantially diminish the quality of life and property values.

Schiff declined to comment if an appeal would be filed.

The matter produced sharp differences among the planning commissioners as well.

“This is just the wrong place,” said Art Woodworth Jr. “There are plenty of other places TECO can site solar. I can’t understand why TECO is so intent on jamming this down the throats of northeast Pasco (residents).”

Planning Commission Charles Grey, who supported the solar farm proposal, acknowledged that perhaps a better location could be found.

But, Grey said: “Every time you find a location, someone will say ‘that is not a great spot. You need to put it over there.’

“It’s a beautiful area,” Grey said. “I want to see it preserved.”

But, Grey continued: “Everyone has rights. Not just you. Property owners have rights too.”

Published April 28, 2018

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