They moved to the country to escape development. Now Duke Energy wants to build a solar farm next door.

FAMU board to vote next week on project that would allow Duke to install units on 800 acres in northeast Hernando County.
Published March 1
Updated March 1

BROOKSVILLE — The sky catches fire out near Daly Road, above the open fields east of the yellow house Acy and Christine Akridge bought nearly a decade ago. They'd almost given up looking for a quiet place for their retirement years when they found it: a shell that had spent years in foreclosure and as a party house for local kids. But the barn was good, Christine thought, and the view was great.

They reshaped it into a home, washing their dishes in the laundry room sink while they built a kitchen. The horses moved into the barn. And Christine flooded her Facebook wall with pictures of the fiery skies at sunrise and sunset.

Now change may come to the fields in pursuit of that sun, and the Akridges and their neighbors fear it will intrude on the quiet lives they've built in this pastoral pocket of northeast Hernando County. Trustees of Florida A&M University will vote Thursday on whether to approve a proposed deal to let Duke Energy build an 800-acre solar energy farm across the road from the Akridges' home.

The deal would make money for the university, which got the land in a 2015 transfer from the federal government. And proponents see it as a small, but necessary push in the battle to slow climate change.

But like other projects in rural central Florida, it's drawing ire from residents, who see it as encroaching on their lives. People who live near the Brooksville site said they haven't been contacted by the university; they found out about the solar farm idea through a newspaper report.

They fear it will drive down their property values, lead to disruptive glare and noise in their neighborhood and spoil their futures.

"What was this all for?" Christine, 62, wondered aloud as she stood in a neighbor's yard recently, surveying her home and the fields across. "We can't start over again."

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In 1932, a family living on nearby Chinsegut Hill donated 3,800 Hernando County acres to the federal government to satisfy tax debts. The biggest chunk of that land sits east of Daly Road. For 80 years, the government used it as a cattle research station, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture halted the program in 2012. In 2015, it transferred the land to Florida A&M, under an agreement that stipulates it be used for agricultural research and education.

The cattle were still there 20 years ago, when Dan Kavouras and his wife moved onto the hill across the road, and a decade later, when the Akridges moved in. Florida A&M owned it by the time Josh Anderson, a 36-year-old real estate broker, moved onto the property next to the Akridges last year. But he read up on the land transfer and had the same good feeling his neighbors did.

The promise Florida A&M had made to keep it agricultural seemed to guarantee that industry or development wouldn't intrude on them.

"It's almost like it was a safe haven around this property over here," Acy Akridge said.

They didn't expect the federal government to define solar energy production as an agricultural use. That designation, granted by the Department of Agriculture, opened the door for Florida A&M to look for bidders for a solar farm.

The proposal from Duke would have the energy company spending two years determining feasibility and two more on construction before beginning operations in 2023. That year, Florida A&M would get $850 per usable acre — as much as $680,000 — with annual 2.5 percent increases.

The Hernando County commission still must approve the project, even if it passes the Board of Trustees.

The solar farm seems like a bad-faith effort, the neighbors said, designed not out of environmental concerns or for research purposes, but to make money for the school and the energy company — a "cash cow," Kavouras said.

Fred Gainous, director of Florida A&M's Brooksville Agricultural and Environmental Research Station, said he believes a solar farm would benefit the entire community, not just the interested parties.

"We came here with every intention of being a good neighbor," he said. "The cost of energy is an issue, and when you have renewable energy at the rate and the effective level a solar farm is, that's a plus for the community."

Although neighbors raised environmental concerns about the solar farm, DeeVon Quirolo, the conservation chair of the local Sierra Club group, said the plan poses more good than harm. The project wouldn't put any wildlife in significant danger, she said, and more pushes like this are needed to slow the damages caused by climate change.

Quirolo sees the project as far less invasive than something like mining expansion, which she's advocated against.

"Impact on neighbors will be so incremental," she said. "It's a small price to pay to help reduce our carbon footprint."

But the residents of Daly Road fear the repercussions already have started.

Anderson bought his home just months ago. His wife is pregnant, the baby due in April, and he sees the house as an investment in his family's future. But the possibility of the solar farm has made his property worth less than when he bought it, he said, and the value will continue to drop if the deal goes through.

He has a real estate term for this: "External obsolescence." It refers to something that's outside a property, but makes the property worth less.

Or, as he put it: "I'm losing. I'm losing real, hard, green money."

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Gainous hopes the Board of Trustees approves the project, he said, but it's not a sure thing. In January, board members expressed support for the solar farm, but also urged Gainous to make sure they don't miss out on more lucrative energy deals. One member mentioned a hemp-research initiative the university has looked into.

The latter would appeal more to the neighbors, who have concerns almost too long to list: Could the glare from solar panels hurt their horses? Would the land require a chemical treatment to kill weeds and brush, and could that pose any dangers? Could the solar farm expand past these 800 acres, already the size of more than 600 football fields?

And encompassing all of it: Why here? Why not somewhere else?

University officials plan to meet with neighbors if a deal is reached, Gainous said.

Even if they could get an audience sooner, Kavouras said, he's sure the feelings of a few upset residents wouldn't change any minds. He and other residents will consider legal action to block the solar farm, just as residents in rural Pasco County have sued to stop a similar project by Tampa Electric Company.

Whether they can afford to sue, he doesn't know. But they think a solar farm may violate some part of the 2015 land transfer agreement, and Kavouras could see a judge having the final say.

"It's gonna come down to the guy in the black robe," he said.

One morning recently, the Akridges and Josh Anderson stood under the sprawling branches of the live oaks in Anderson's front yard. Acy Akridge looked past two of the Andersons' horses wandering across a field, to the open land across the road.

"People paint pictures just for that right there," he said. "You tell me when someone painted a famous picture with panels in the background."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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