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Lithia residents recruit political muscle in battle against TECO

LITHIA — Homeowners in Southeast Hillsborough have recruited political muscle in their fight against TECO Energy and its plan to run transmission lines through their neighborhood.

So far, they've received assurances of support from Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan and state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

State Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview, said she hasn't adopted a position yet but plans to do so after a town hall meeting set for May 24 at 6:30 p.m. in Fishhawk's Palmetto Club conference room, 17004 Dorman Road.

"I'm having a community meeting with them just so I can hear all the issues," she said. "At that time I will have a better perspective in order to take a position."

Neighborhood opposition has been bubbling up since late March when TECO sent fliers about the project to hundreds of homes in Lithia and Wimauma, including residents in Fishhawk Ranch and neighboring subdivisions.

The mailers sparked a litany of calls and emails to local politicians and vows by some residents to take their fight to state regulators to try to block the project.

"We're trying to get as much support as we can," said Christie VanVleet, who, with her husband, Jason, launched the Facebook page "Stop Power Lines NOW."

Storms has offered her office as a one-stop resource to help residents learn how to navigate the regulatory process and make their fight more effective.

Likely, the residents will need to formally register their complaints, sign affidavits and sign up to testify before they can address regulators, said Audie Canney, Storms' aide.

TECO said it's anticipating growth in coming years and is seeking bids from energy providers to buy electricity that it can't generate at its Polk County plant.

If those bids, due May 22, come in too high, the utility said it will submit an application to state regulators in late July or early August to expand its system to accommodate as many as 100,000 new homes. It would break ground in two years to bring the new system online by January 2017.

The plan, as it stands now, calls for transmission cables atop 100-foot poles running from a proposed substation at Balm Boyette Road and County Road 672 in Wimauma to an existing substation at Fishhawk Boulevard, Boyette Road and Lithia Pinecrest Road.

The path of the power lines, which is at the heart of the dispute with neighbors, would parallel dozens of homes, many within 100 yards, residents say. The easement now functions as a nature trail and was formerly a railroad line.

"No one is happy about it at all," Fishhawk resident Melissa Sharma said. "It will lower our property values, and they're already depreciated because of the economy. Who's going to want to live next to transmission lines?"

The issue is generating buzz at County Commission offices, even though TECO doesn't need the commission's blessing in order to proceed.

Last month, Hagan, chairman of the commission, told a TECO delegation at his office that he's against the path of lines near the Fishhawk homes and afterward reiterated that position in an email to TECO regional manager Doug Driggers.

"I think political muscle is a good start, and we'll see what comes of that," Fishhawk resident Phyllis DeFonzo said.

Jason VanVleet said homeowners lined up political support in the event the plan goes to the state Department of Environmental Protection and Public Service Commission for approval in late summer or early fall.

A DEP spokesman said residents would be allowed to testify about the project's environmental impacts only. The Public Service Commission said it would hold a separate hearing on the matter that would allow for broader arguments.

Residents say the power lines would depreciate home values and might pose health risks from the electro-magnetic fields they would produce. The residents want the lines moved to less populated areas or buried.

"These agencies are open to the influence of folks in these (elected) offices, and that's why we need to try to get politicians on board," VanVleet said. "There are 200 homes within 100 yards of these transmission lines. This will affect a lot of people."

Rich Shopes can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Lithia residents recruit political muscle in battle against TECO 05/10/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 10, 2012 4:30am]
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