Neighbor drops fight against planned solar farm in Pasco

The end of the lawsuit finishes one of last legal challenges facing Tampa Electric’s proposal .
A neighbor has given up her legal challenge to a planned solar farm on Blanton Road near Dade City.
A neighbor has given up her legal challenge to a planned solar farm on Blanton Road near Dade City. [ Times ]
Published Jan. 15, 2020

DADE CITY — A Blanton woman has dropped her legal challenge to Tampa Electric Co.'s proposed solar farm near her rural home.

The suit against Pasco County from Sandra Noble was dismissed with prejudice — meaning it can’t be filed again — according to a Jan. 6 document signed by her attorney, Rena Upshaw-Frazier, and lawyers for Pasco County and Tampa Electric. Each party will be responsible for its own legal fees.

The end of the suit came a month after the Pasco County Commission rejected a $165,000 settlement offer from Noble and Robert Dammers, who filed a separate legal challenge with an administrative law judge.

Related: Pasco Count balks at solar suit settlement

Both contended that Pasco County’s ordinance allowing solar energy facilities on agricultural land — adopted after the county had approved plans for Tampa Electric’s Mountain View solar near Dade City — violated the county’s land-use plan. The proposed solar farm’s location, along both sides of Blanton Road near the Pasco-Hernando State College campus, is considered one of the gateways to rural northeast Pasco, which is protected by development rules intended to preserve the area’s rural characteristics and scenic vistas.

Related: Pasco wins ruling in Tampa Electric Co. solar dispute

Noble, of Zia Ridge Lane, filed suits in Pasco Circuit Court against the county over the Tampa Electric Co. plan 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 state 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.

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

Related: Pasco rejects neighbors' appeal

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. That was the suit dismissed Jan. 6.

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

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Related: Neighbor sues over solar farm plan in Pasco

How the end of Noble’s suit affects Dammers’ case couldn’t be immediately determined. Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein referred questions to Dammers’ attorney, Susan Johnson-Valdez, whose voicemail did not accept messages and who did not respond to two emails for comment last week.

Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the utility continues to consider the Pasco site for a future solar project. Tampa Electric, which serves about 765,000 customers in the region, previously announced a $850 million investment adding 600 megawatts of solar energy from 10 new sites by 2021. The facility in Blanton is intended to produce 55 megawatts.