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Pasco County wins ruling in Tampa Electric Co. solar farm dispute

An ordinance did not violate the county’s land-use plan that is supposed to protect rural Northeast Pasco, a judge said.

Pasco County’s after-the-fact ordinance allowing solar farms in agricultural districts does not violate the county’s land-use plan, an administrative judge has ruled.

The Sept. 11 decision from Judge Francine M. Ffolkes rejected the argument from Robert Dammers of Blanton that the county’s ordinance ran contrary to the protections guaranteed to rural northeast Pasco in the comprehensive plan.

Dammers previously appealed to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity after the county adopted the June 2018 ordinance allowing solar farms in agricultural districts. The county amended its code after it already had approved Tampa Electric Co.’s proposal to build a 55 megawatt solar facility on both sides of Blanton Road near the east Pasco campus of Pasco Hernando State College.

The area is considered one of the gateways to rural northeast Pasco, a planning district north of State Road 52 stretching from Bellamy Brothers Boulevard east to the Green Swamp. It is supposed to be safeguarded against urban sprawl by provisions in the comprehensive plan to protect its rolling hills and scenic views. Separately, two civil lawsuits from a different plaintiff were filed in Pasco Circuit Court challenging the county’s April 2018 approval of the solar farm.

But last week, a three-judge panel, acting as an appeals court, denied a bid from neighbor Sandra Noble to quash the Pasco County Commission’s approval of the solar project. A separate suit from Noble is pending.

In Dammers’ case, he petitioned the Department of Administrative Hearing to intercede after the Department of Economic Opportunity ruled in the county’s favor. The judge’s final order came after two days of hearings in July in Dade City.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed by the ruling,’’ said Dammer’s attorney, Susan J. Johnson-Velez of Tampa. “We certainly feel, as our clients do, that the ordinance ... could open the floodgates for development that will really run contrary to all of the protections in the comprehensive plan for this beautiful area of northeast Pasco County.’’

Ffolkes’ ruling, however, said Dammers did not prove “beyond fair debate that (the ordinance) is inconsistent or incompatible with the objectives, policies and goals applicable to the rural area.’’

“Fairly debatable,’’ according to a 1997 Florida Supreme Court ruling, “is a highly deferential standard requiring approval of a planning action if reasonable persons could differ as to its propriety.’’

Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said the county was pleased by the ruling, but noted the pending lawsuit in Circuit Court.

“I can’t say it’s resolved,’’ he said.