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Opponents strategize to keep Progress Energy lines away

As residents' anger grows over Progress Energy's proposed power line expansion, state Sen. Mike Fasano has criticized the project's potential impact on Pasco and county commissioners are gearing up for a possible fight with the utility. Their opposition comes as Progress officials say there's a misunderstanding about their plans.

The commission on Tuesday told county staff to study what Pasco can do to resist Progress, including the possibility of hiring attorneys and consultants to carry the fight to court.

Opposition to the $18-billion project mounted at recent meetings between Progress and residents, including one at Rushe Middle School where hundreds showed up to protest the prospect of new power lines along State Road 54.

Progress hasn't confirmed the route of its expanded lines, which would run south from a proposed nuclear power plant in Levy County.

In Pasco, running the lines along SR 54 is one east-west option, and it's a big concern to residents.

"I don't like it a bit," said Barbara Gerhart, who lives in the Lake Patience neighborhood. "They could cut right through our home."

Some argue big power lines would make proposed business centers like Ashley Glen, at the Suncoast Parkway and SR 54, less attractive to employers.

If residents want to win the battle, they'll have to point out what is different about Pasco, instead of advancing generic not-in-my-backyard arguments, said Octavio Blanco, an Odessa veterinarian who successfully defended his property from the Suncoast Parkway's encroachment.

"What's different here is all those employment centers on the SR 54 corridor," said Blanco. "I would stress that this is a statewide issue, and we need to help the economy."

Blanco said that if Progress is allowed to expand this time, the utility can advance the same arguments to expand again in Pasco in future.

Through an aide Wednesday, Fasano said he stood with residents on the issue.

"He has great concerns about the proposed expansion along 54," said Greg Giordano, the senator's chief legislative aide. "He feels there are too many power lines in Pasco as it is. He's against (the prospect of) residents being impacted by this."

Fasano plans to attend a community meeting on Saturday between Progress officials and the residents of the Briar Patch community in New Port Richey, where he plans to express his opposition, Giordano said.

Commissioners are pushing Progress to pick a southern route instead of SR 54, which would have the lines run through Pinellas and Hillsborough counties instead.

Commissioner Michael Cox said he's hoping for a wave of public resistance similar to those that killed Buccaneer Gas Pipeline Co.'s proposed natural gas line in the late 1990s. He believes Progress has already decided on SR 54.

"I anticipate we will launch a challenge similar to the Buccaneer gas line project," he said. "We will hire attorneys and experts to prove that these are not the perfect routes."

Commission chairman Ted Schrader said he is glad people have spoken out against the proposed lines.

"I'm hopeful Progress heard the message loud and clear," he said. "They have to take a real, serious hard look at alternatives."

At Tuesday's commission meeting, the leaders signaled their resistance.

"I say give 'em hell, and tell them this is our county," said commissioner Pat Mulieri.

Progress spokesman Buddy Eller said Wednesday there's been misinformation about their plans. The utility already has power lines along SR 54, visible to drivers on that road, which do not cut through neighborhoods.

If the plan is to expand the line along SR 54, that's the most likely route, he said.

"If we choose that as a potential corridor, (co-locating on that line) is probably going to be the case," Eller said. "We might not need any new land, we might not need any new right-of-way width."

If Progress needs right of way, it will be at most 125 feet wide along that route, he said.

Schools may be impacted too, but district officials are keeping a wait-and-see attitude.

"I know people have strong feelings, but until we know the actual route, then we'll look at it then and see how it's impacting schools," said John Soler, the district's energy coordinator. "We may not like it, but if it's a mile away I don't have any concerns with it."

Progress will announce its preferred route in mid-to-late May, Eller said.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com or (813)909-4613.

Opponents strategize to keep Progress Energy lines away 04/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 1:58pm]
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