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Florida Power puts hold on 3-county line

After a decade of fighting to build a high-voltage power line across the Tampa Bay area, Florida Power Corp. unexpectedly announced Tuesday it was putting the project on hold while it examined other options.

The utility said it made the decision because the project's price tag had risen too high _ to $80-million from an original estimate of $23-million _ to make it cost-effective.

The environmental, medical and legal objections raised by residents and elected officials fighting the line were not factors, according to utility spokeswoman Karen Raihill.

The 500,000-volt line, suspended on towers up to 175 feet high, would have run 44 miles, from Polk County, across Hillsborough, to a transmission station on Lake Tarpon in north Pinellas County.

Residents whose back yards and barbecues would have bumped up against the 100-foot-wide path of the power line said they were delighted with the news.

"I can't believe this has actually happened," said David Gallagher, past president of Citizens Coalition for Responsible Power, which has fought the transmission line for years.

"This is the best news our group and the residents of Northdale and Carrollwood have heard in five years," Gallagher said. "The little guy wins sometimes, and it looks like we're having our day in the sun."

Nancy Flemming, a Northdale resident who first organized residents to fight the line, said "Hallelujah!" when the coalition's attorney called her with the news.

"So many times we have come close to believing we had won this fight," said Flemming, whose home-phone call-waiting was clicking with congratulatory messages during an interview. "The fact we had prevailed . . . it was a little hard to believe at first."

Florida Power officials were careful to say they have not abandoned the idea. Rather, they are putting it on hold and preparing to ask Florida's Public Service Commission to consider approving less-expensive alternatives. Utility officials wouldn't say Tuesday what those alternatives might be.

Florida Power wanted the line to be a backup conduit of power for Pinellas County, in case Pinellas' principal supply lines from the Crystal River nuclear power plant were rendered inoperable. Officials predicted that widespread, long-lasting blackouts in Pinellas and parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties could result if the backup line wasn't built.

The blackouts never occurred. Power line opponents had argued that the lack of such problems proved the line unnecessary. Utility officials say that isn't so.

"The risk of a blackout is still a very real possibility," power spokeswoman Raihill said Tuesday.

Power line opponents for some time had also attacked the project on grounds of cost, saying the utility had underestimated the expense in order to promote it. They also claimed that federal rules regarding land acquisition would drive the price even higher.

Raihill said those claims weren't correct.

"Some of the original estimates may have been conservative," Raihill said. "Inflation was certainly a factor."

Critics also were concerned about the possible effect construction would have on wetlands, and the possible cancer risk from the line's electromagnetic fields. Raihill noted that the utility had obtained all the required state and federal permits and that Florida Power believed its lines to be safe.

Tom Dyer, a vice president of Two Rivers Ranch, a sprawling northeast Hillsborough property that would have been crossed by the line, said he was "cautiously optimistic that the impacts on property values, on our natural environment and to the stockholders and ratepayers of Florida Power can be avoided in a more practicable alternative."

Hillsborough County Attorney Emeline Acton, whose office led the legal battle for Hillsborough County, said the announcement validated the opposition to the project voiced by commissioners.

"It did not make sense from the beginning," Acton said. "There was not a need for it. Even if there was, it was in the wrong place _ a high-density residential and environmentally sensitive area. We've spent millions on this."

Commissioner Phyllis Busansky, one of several local elected officials to oppose the project, said she was "very, very pleased."

"Clearly citizen outrage had to be some part of it, and the fight was not going to stop," Busansky said.

Gallagher, a resident of the Country Place subdivision, said residents hadn't heard much about the proposed power line in recent months. They thought it was just a matter of time before Florida Power went ahead with its plans. The utility in February received the final federal permit approval it needed before construction could begin.

"In the past, we have been surprised at the turns and backturns that have occurred in the project, and I think people are still skeptical that this can happen," Gallagher said.

"Finally, Florida Power has heard the people and read their letters and realized this is not in the public interest," he said. "They are finally listening because it has finally started to cost them money."

Opponents said they plan to keep a close eye on the process and attend meetings of the PSC to monitor the situation.

"It was a hard fought victory, and I hope it's for real," said resident Roger Elgar. "I don't want to sound negative, but I hope it's not some ploy.

"We want to help them, and we have been saying all along that there are ways to solve their goals rather than ramming it through an existing easement that was not meant to accommodate such a line," Elgar said. "We are not vindictive against Florida Power. We are very happy with the turn of events. My wife is dancing in the streets."

Flemming, the citizen activist, said there would be gatherings of grateful residents Tuesday night in homes in the subdivisions that would have been the line's neighbors _ Lake Heather Oaks, Ormandy Court, Northdale.

"This has been 10 years of my life," Flemming said. "My daughter Amy was 3 when this started. Now she's 13."

_ Times staff writer Susan Clary contributed to this report.