DADE CITY – Pasco Commissioners Tuesday approved Tampa Electric Co.'s plans for a solar farm in the rural northeast Pasco, saying state law didn't allow them to prohibit solar energy collectors.
"Our hands are tied," said Commissioner Jack Mariano.
The unanimous vote came at the conclusion of a nearly three-hour hearing in which neighbors appealed an earlier Planning Commission decision allowing the solar farm.
Attorneys had argued the April 9 Planning Commission decision was illegal and denied due process to neighboring residents.
"There's no fundamental fairness in this process," said attorney Gordon Schiff. He sought unsuccessfully to disqualify Commissioner Ron Oakley from participating in the appeal, saying his comments published in advance of the hearing indicated he favored the project.
Schiff's clients, Gordon and Kathleen Comer, owners of the 243-acre Platt Road Farms-78 LLC, objected to the decision permitting Tampa Electric to build the 55-megawatt system in Blanton. The company wants to put approximately 470,000 solar panels — each measuring about two feet across and four feet deep — on 205 of the 350 acres of pasture land the utility is acquiring along Blanton Road.
That Planning Commission decision "approved the industrialization of 350 acres" guaranteed rural scenic scenic protections in the county's comprehensive land use plan, argued attorney Rena Frazier, who represented another objector, Sandra Noble of Zia Ridge Lane.
The appeal hearing, before a crowded commission chambers at the Historic County Courthouse in Dade City, continued what has been a long-running debate since Tampa Electric revealed plans for the solar plant in March. State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and his wife, Kathy, own 252 acres that will be sold to the utility for the project.
Residents complained the solar farm in their neighborhood will be unsightly and will violate the county's comprehensive plan that provides specific protections for their rural area's rolling hills and scenic vistas.
Commissioners had heard many of the arguments previously. In June, they approved a new ordinance to guide where future solar farms could be located in the county.
At the time, Schiff called the ordinance an "attempt to bootstrap the matter to prior staff interpretations of the (land development code), which are not legally supportable.''
Noble also has filed an appeal to county approval of that ordinance.
The county said the ordinance was needed because prior zoning rules did not mention solar plants. The Tampa Electric application for its Mountain View Solar project relied on a county staff statement that such solar farms are allowable in agricultural areas with a special exception permit.
Opponents saiid solar energy plants should be considered heavy industry not appropriate for land designated for farming or other less-intensive uses.
The plant is part of Tampa Electric's plan to install 6 million solar panels in 10 sites over the next three years. The Pasco project represents a $75 million investment in solar energy, Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs has said. Tuesday, she said the company plans to begin applying for the necessary permits and hopes to have the facility operating before the end of next year.
Frazer declined comment when asked if her client would challenge the county decision in circuit court.