A decision on how and where to permit solar farms in Pasco County is headed for a vote on June 5 at 1:30 p.m., in Dade City.
Pasco County commissioners will consider an amended ordinance for the land development code on regulating solar farms. The ordinance had a first public hearing on May 22 in New Port Richey. No vote was taken at that hearing.
The matter has produced heated debate since plans for the Mountain View Solar Project were filed with Pasco County earlier this year.
Tampa Electric Company, known as TECO, is proposing to install about 464,000 photovoltaic solar panels on about 350 acres, on both sides of Blanton. The solar panels are expected to produce about 53 megawatts of power, which will be fed into TECO’s power grid.
Previously, the Mountain View Solar Project received approval from Pasco County Planning Commission for a special exception permit. However, a final decision from Pasco County commissioners is on hold after two appeals of that decision were filed in May.
The ordinance to be heard in Dade City, if approved, would codify the county’s future approach to permitting solar farms.
Currently, the land development code doesn’t specifically list where “solar electric power collection facilities” are permitted. As a result, decisions regarding TECO’s proposal were based on a section dealing with uncertain classification rules.
The proposed ordinance would permit solar farms as special exceptions in agricultural zones, and permitted use in some commercial and industrial zones. Also, decisions on permitting would be left to county staff and the planning commission.
Pasco County commissioners wouldn’t directly vote on the permits, but would hear appeals.
At the May 22 hearing, about a dozen opponents spoke against the ordinance and the solar farm project, including two attorneys representing area homeowners.
Attorney Gordon Schiff represents Kathleen and Gordon Comer, who own a home and farm on property off Platt Road. Schiff filed the appeal of the planning commission’s decision on May 8, on behalf of the Comers.
Attorney Susan Johnson Velez represents a group of homeowners in northeast Pasco, including Sandra Noble. Noble filed an appeal of the planning commission’s decision, also on May 8.
Both attorneys raised objections to the county’s interpretation of sections of its land development code that were used to craft the proposed new ordinance.
Schiff said the county was treating solar farms as compatible with neighborhoods when they “are industrial in nature.”
TECO’s proposal should be held to tougher standards than the county is applying, he said.
The proposed facility “is not a substation, not commercial farming or agricultural activity. It’s a power plant,” said Schiff.
Johnson Velez said the county was ignoring its policies on protecting rural areas, including the natural views of rolling hills.
“I’m not sure how you protect scenic vistas from nearly half-a-million solar panels,” she said. “I think that should be addressed.”
Area residents also spoke in opposition. No one spoke in favor.
“Solar is a wonderful thing in the right place…but not in people’s backyards,” said Nancy Hazelwood.
If approved, the ordinance would apply countywide, not just in northeast Pasco, she said.
Some counties put solar farms in industrial areas, and others have created special districts for solar farms, she added.
Hazelwood asked that the county hire an outside consultant, not connected to the power industry, to study solar energy.
In the meantime, the ordinance would be put on hold, she said. “It’s too important to your citizens.”
Noah Kaaa, who lives on Platt Road, agreed.
What works in Hudson might not work in Trilby or Zephyrhills, he said.
“It’s too broad of a paintbrush to use across the entire county,” he said.
Denise Hernandez, the county’s zoning administrator, tried to address some of the resident’s concerns.
Research on other counties has been done, she said.
Hillsborough and Polk counties issue conditional use permits, and largely allow the decisions to be made at the staff level. Solar farms are allowed in agricultural zones in those counties, she said.
Applications for solar facilities would be handled on a case-by-case basis, said David Goldstein, Pasco’s chief assistant county attorney.
Because planning commission decisions can be appealed, he said, “Ultimately, the board of commissioners does have final say.”
Published May 30, 2018