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Friday, Mar 16, 2018
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Solar plan leaves east Pasco neighbors burning

DADE CITY — Sharon Hanna-West lives in rural northeast Pasco on a street called Tranquiview Lane.

Except the tranquility in the surrounding area is gone, and neighbors fear the views will be next.

Hanna-West and more than 100 other people crowded into a Pasco Hernando State College conference center last week for a community meeting called by Tampa Electric. The utility is proposing to put approximately 470,000 solar panels — each measuring about two feet across and four feet deep — on 350 acres of pasture land along Blanton Road.

About 250 acres of the land is owned by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and his wife, Kathy, who purchased the property in 2016. Previous owners had earmarked the land for a 300-home residential community called Berry Hill Estates and later, College Hill.

Residents, however, view that land — directly across the street from the college campus — as a gateway to Blanton and northeast Pasco that has been granted rural protections under the county’s comprehensive land-use plan. They said the solar farm will detract from the aesthetic qualities offered by the rolling hills and scenic vistas. They also said they worried a field of solar panels would diminish their property values.

The informational meeting, with Tampa Electric and Luna Solar Energy representatives on hand to answer individual questions, deteriorated in less than an hour when emotions spiked among residents believing they were getting the cold shoulder.

"This is ridiculous,’’ said Dot Wood of Spring Valley Road, "I suggest we all leave and tell the county we aren’t happy.’’

Hanna-West, however, urged her neighbors to "think really long and hard about blanket opposition.’’ She said they would be better served trying to find a middle ground with Tampa Electric to have some say over the development.

Simpson, in an interview from Tallahassee, said he thought a solar farm would be preferential to the previously planned housing development. It wouldn’t generate traffic or noise, and would include substantial landscape buffers.

"Really, we’re all in favor of solar electricity and sustainable energy,’’ he said. "I thought it would be very good for the community.’’

Residents didn’t dispute the benefits of solar energy. They did, however, dispute the planned location.

"How can he (Simpson) build something like that in here and expect us not to fight?’’ asked Mark DellaPorte of Sweetwater Road.

Rolando Perez spent the past five years building his home at 36681 Blanton Road. He expects to be finished in four months.

"I was devastated,’’ said Perez. "It’s right in front of my house. That’s industrial and this is a residential and agricultural area.’’

Thomas and Laura Myers moved to their Blanton Road home five months ago from Lexington Oaks in Wesley Chapel. They were lured by the open space "to push your kids outside and get them off the TV and off the internet. Let them see the rolling hills. You don’t see that in Florida,’’ said Thomas Myers.

Myers said he anticipated growth at some point, "but I never anticipated this.’’

"I am sure it’s going to really devalue my property. We’re all going to lose value. I don even know if I can sell any property if this goes through,’’ said former Dade City Mayor Pat Weaver, who lives on 36 acres.

Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs offered a different view.

"These plants do not have emissions, do not use water, do not increase traffic and do not make noise. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, the impacts on property values caused by solar plants are anticipated to be essentially negligible. Anecdotal evidence suggests solar plants can help support a region’s reputation as a sustainable community,’’ she said via email.

Tampa Electric also is aware of the aesthetic concerns.

"Solar plants have a low profile, no higher than a one-story building. The company complies with local and federal regulations for landscaping. We are working with neighbors to determine their preferences,’’ Jacobs said.

Kimball Engle of Spring Valley Road was in the minority. He supported the project and said he would have offered his own 40 acres to Tampa Electric if he knew they were buying land.

"These views,’’ he said, " if you want to own that view, write a check to the land owner, and then you can own that view.’’

The planned solar plant in Blanton would produce 55 megawatts of electricity, part of the company’s plan to install 6 million solar panels in 10 sites over the next three years. If approved, the Pasco project is expected to be completed by the end of the year and represents a company investment of $75 million investment in solar energy.

To develop the site, Tampa Electric is seeking a so-called special exception permit from Pasco County. The application will be heard by the Pasco Planning Commission at a future date.

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

RELATED: Tampa Electric plans Pasco solar farm.

RELATED: Utility plans solar power for 100,000 homes by 2021.

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Solar plan leaves east Pasco neighbors burning