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Residents balk at Pasco solar farm ordinance

Tampa Electric's plan to build a 350-acre solar farm northwest of Dade City in rural Pasco County is being challenged by neighbors who oppose the project and a proposed county ordinance designating where solar farms ben be located in the future. TIMES file - 2016
Tampa Electric's plan to build a 350-acre solar farm northwest of Dade City in rural Pasco County is being challenged by neighbors who oppose the project and a proposed county ordinance designating where solar farms ben be located in the future. TIMES file - 2016
Published May 28, 2018

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County is trying to write new rules on where the next private solar energy farm can go.

Critics, however, note the county hasn't yet decided if the first one can locate as proposed.

The dispute centers on an April 9 Pasco Planning Commission decision granting permission, known as a special exception, to Tampa Electric Co. to build a 55-megawatt solar electrical system on 350 acres in Blanton. Neighbors are appealing that ruling to the county commission.

Simultaneously, Pasco is proposing to amend its land development code to designate the zoning districts where solar farms can be located.

The action is needed, the county said, because existing zoning rules do not mention solar plants. That meant 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.

The proposed ordinance, making that staff decision a permanent part of the development code and delineating other zoning categories where the facilities will be allowed, "will provide greater certainty and predictability'' for future solar farms, Pasco Zoning Administrator Denise Hernandez wrote in a memo to commissioners.

Residents in Blanton have their own certainties. They are certain 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 qualities.

"I'm not sure how you protect scenic vistas from nearly half-a-million solar panels, but I think that needs to be addressed,'' Tampa attorney Susan Johnson-Valez told Pasco commissioners last week during a public hearing on the proposed ordinance.

Her clients include Sandra Noble of Zia Ridge Lane, who is appealing the Planning Commission authorization of the Mountain View solar farm. So, too, are Gordon and Kathleen Comer, owners of the 243-acre Platt Road Farms-78 LLC.

Last week, the Comers' attorney, Gordon Schiff, told commissioners the proposed ordinance was an attempt to legitimize improper staff and Planning Commission decisions and that making it retroactive will affect his clients' appeal.

The proposal is an "attempt to bootstrap the matter to prior staff interpretations of the (land development code), which are not legally supportable,'' Schiff said.

The proposed ordinance is scheduled for a final public hearing and commission vote at 1:30 p.m. June 5 in Dade City. Schiff has asked the commission to hear the appeal on the Mountain View special exception application in September.

Other speakers at the public hearing urged commissioners to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to siting solar energy plants. The facilities, opponents said, should be considered heavy industry not appropriate for land designated for farming or other less-intensive uses.

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"You should never call a solar plant agriculture. It should never happen,'' said Alma Coston of Spring Valley Road.

Likewise, opponents were critical of permitting solar farms via the special exception designation.

It means appointed planning commissioners, not elected county commissioners, will decide future applications. Appealing those planning commission decisions to the full county commission carries a $2,500 fee.

The public comments continued what has been a long-running debate since Tampa Electric first revealed its plans for a solar plant along Blanton Road. State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and his wife, Kathy, own 252 acres that will be sold to the utility for the project.

Prior owners of the land, near the Dade City campus of Pasco-Hernando State College, had targeted the property for residential development.

Those plans never came to fruition amid severe pushback from nearby residents who argued an influx of suburban housing contradicted the vicinity's rural protections included in the county's comprehensive land-use plan.

The solar farm, opponents have said, also violates those protections.

Reach C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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