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Pasco County balks at solar suit settlement

Two residents proposed a $165,000 payment to end litigation over a planned solar farm in Blanton.

DADE CITY — Residents battling a solar farm in rural east Pasco offered to drop their legal challenges in exchange for $165,000. On Tuesday, Pasco County officials rejected the offer.

Without comment, Pasco County commissioners voted to follow their legal staff’s recommendation to continue defending the county against separate legal challenges from Robert Dammers and Sandra Noble. Both live near the property in Blanton that Tampa Electric Co. acquired for a solar farm.

Noble’s attorney, Rena Upshaw-Frazier, and Dammers’ lawyer, Susan Johnson-Valez, both declined comment.

Dammers, of Dionna Way, is appealing a Sept. 11 decision from Administrative Judge Francine M. Ffolkes. She rejected his arguments that a June 2018 county ordinance ran contrary to the protections guaranteed to rural northeast Pasco in the county’s land-use plan.

The county commission adopted the ordinance, allowing solar farms in agricultural districts, after it 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.

Noble, of Zia Ridge Lane filed suits in Pasco Circuit Court against the county and Tampa Electric Co., which plans to install 470,000 solar panels on the 382 acres. The utility paid more than $6.8 million for the land in 2018. Among the sellers were Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and his wife, Kathy, who received nearly $4.45 million for 252 acres.

The Pasco County Planning Commission approved the utility’s plan in April 2018, granting a so-called special exception permit for the plant. Neighbors argued that the solar facility equated to a heavy industrial use in an agricultural area that was guaranteed development protections in the county’s comprehensive land plan.

Noble and another neighbor appealed the Planning Commission decision to the full county commission. But after a hearing in September 2018, commissioners affirmed their earlier approval, saying state law didn’t allow them to prohibit solar energy collectors.

In a Circuit Court filing, Noble asked the court to review the county commission’s decision denying the appeal, saying it violated her right to due process. A three-judge panel in the Circuit Court’s Appellate Division rejected her claim in a September ruling.

Separately, Noble filed a lawsuit against the county seeking an injunction to block the power plant. She raised arguments, similar to Dammers, that the solar farm violated the county’s comprehensive land plan by allowing industrial development in a rural area with rolling hills and scenic vistas that are supposed to be safeguarded from sprawl. That suit is pending.

Both plaintiffs offered a joint settlement to the county in which Dammers would withdraw his appeal and Noble would dismiss her pending action and waive any appeals to the September ruling in exchange for $165,000, according to a memorandum to commissioners from Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein.

Tampa Electric rejected a similar offer from Dammers and Nobles, Goldstein said. The commission followed suit on Tuesday.

A Tampa Electric spokeswoman said Monday that the company continues to consider the Pasco County site for a future solar project.