Pasco County Commission denies solar farm appeals

The Pasco County Commission has denied two appeals seeking to block the construction of a solar farm on pastureland, outside Dade City.

Gordon and Kathleen Comer, and Sandra Noble, who live near the proposed solar farm site both challenged the Planning Commission’s approval of a special exception permit for the project.

Attorney Gordon Schiff represented the Comers and attorney Rena Frazier represented Noble during the Pasco County Commission’s Sept. 4 hearing on both appeals.

Those living near the proposed Mountain View Solar Farm said the project will destroy the area’s scenic views. (File)

Attorney Cate Wells represented Tampa Electric Company (TECO).

First Solar Electric, which has a contract with TECO, wants to install about 460,000 photovoltaic solar panels on about 205 of 350 acres of pastureland, on both sides of Blanton Road. Portions of the site are bordered by Frazee Hill and Platt roads.

The solar farm, known as the Mountain View Solar Project, would produce power to be fed to  TECO’s power grid.

From the onset, the proposed project has been controversial.

Opponents packed the meeting room during the Planning Commission’s hearing, with speakers contending that the solar farm would destroy one of the county’s best assets – its scenic views.

At the appeals hearing, Frazer said the solar farm is a major utility that should be located within a master-planned development.

Both Schiff and Frazer said the project should be denied because it violates the county’s Northeast Rural Protection plan.

Wells, representing TECO, said the solar farm will be buffered by trees and shrubs, and will have little impact due to traffic or noise.

Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida, who spoke in support of the project during the Planning Commission hearing reiterated that support.

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.

When the Planning Commission approved the special exception permit for the Mountain View solar farm, the county’s ordinances did not directly address solar farms.

County Commissioners subsequently approved an ordinance, in June, relating to the placement of solar farms.

Pasco County now allows solar farms as special exceptions in agricultural zones, and as permitted uses in some commercial and industrial zones. Future decisions on permitting are now decided by county staff and the Planning Commission, with the County Commission involved only when there are appeals.

During the Sept. 4 appeal hearing, both Schiff and Frazer said that Commissioner Ron Oakley should recuse himself.

“There was an article published right after the Planning Commission decision and Commissioner Oakley made a comment, and the comment was substantial enough to show that he exhibits bias in this proceeding,” Schiff said. “He favors approval, in fact he wants approval.

“In this case, Commissioner Oakley should recuse himself, and if not, he should be disqualified,” Schiff added.

Elizabeth Blair, senior assistant county attorney, said the issue had been researched and it was determined that Oakley had no bias and should participate.

Both Schiff and Frazer said the solar plant should be denied because it is inconsistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code. Both asked commissioners to reverse the Planning Commission’s decision and deny the application.

Frazer noted the solar farm cannot be adequately buffered because of the area’s terrain.

“The elevation of the land is such that the panels cannot be hidden,” Frazer said.

Wells, representing TECO, cited the County Commission’s June adoption of the ordinance relating to the placement of solar farms.

“The ordinance was intended to be remedial in nature, to clarify existing law and, as such, applied retroactively to all applications or appeals pending as of the effective date of this ordinance,” Wells said.

Noble has filed an appeal, challenging the county’s June ordinance, relating to the placement of solar farms.

Published September 12, 2018

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