LITHIA — Charles Van Auken fought in Somalia and in Iraq twice, and now the retired Army major is gearing up for another battle.
This time, it's against TECO Energy and its plan to run high-voltage transmission lines behind his house.
"Somalia. Desert Storm. The Gulf War. I was a DOD contractor working in the Green Zone two and a half years ago," Van Auken said. "Now I've got to deal with this? It's just infuriating because it feels like we've been sold a bill of goods."
Van Auken wasn't the only one irritated. At an open house last Thursday at Fishhawk Fellowship Church, nearly 100 residents gathered to fill out TECO surveys gauging public sentiment toward the plan and give the utility, Tampa's largest, an earful.
For 90 minutes, residents looked over maps, diagrams and photos and asked pointed questions: Aren't transmission lines a health hazard? How will they affect property values? Why can't the utility bury the lines or, better yet, run them elsewhere?
TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs and 10 other TECO representatives did their best to stay upbeat, explain the project and insist they will consider residents' concerns before finalizing any plan.
They made no promises about burying the cables or moving them and insisted the jury is still out on health dangers.
Jacobs said TECO anticipates growth in coming years, so the company is looking to beef up its power plant in southwestern Polk County and run transmission cables on 100-foot poles to a proposed substation at Balm Boyette Road and County Road 672 in Wimauma.
The lines would extend from that substation to an existing substation at Fishhawk Boulevard, Boyette Road and Lithia Pinecrest Road. Five possible routes for transmission lines in Wimauma are also being considered. TECO would choose one of the routes.
The utility is seeking bids from energy providers to purchase electricity it can't generate at its Polk plant. If those bids, which are due May 22, aren't low enough to satisfy TECO, the utility said it will go ahead with the expansion.
If backed by state regulators, TECO would break ground in two years to bring the new substation online by 2017. In addition to last week's meeting, TECO plans an open house 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Wimauma Senior Center, 5715 North St.
Christie VanVleet, 38, a Fishhawk mother of four, attended the meeting. She handed out leaflets urging residents to oppose the project and warning that proximity to transmission lines might cause cancer. Two days earlier she launched the Facebook page "Stop Power Lines NOW."
"I believe that if you have enough voices, enough concerned residents that are properly informed, they're going to listen," she said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected]