Neighbor sues over Tampa Electric's solar farm plan in Pasco

County approval of the solar project violates Pasco's own land plan guaranteeing extra protections for the area's rural and scenic qualities, the suit states.
Two photos. 1. A worker installs a solar panel at Duke Energy Florida's new 3.8 megawatt solar array in Osceola County, near St. Cloud. The facility is on 17 acres and is expected to start generating electricity in the spring. (Shot by William R. Levesque)
2. Shot of same array as in photo #1. (Shot by Levesque.)
3. View of the Duke solar array from the air. (Photo by Duke Energy.)
Two photos. 1. A worker installs a solar panel at Duke Energy Florida's new 3.8 megawatt solar array in Osceola County, near St. Cloud. The facility is on 17 acres and is expected to start generating electricity in the spring. (Shot by William R. Levesque) 2. Shot of same array as in photo #1. (Shot by Levesque.) 3. View of the Duke solar array from the air. (Photo by Duke Energy.)
Published November 1 2018

The battle over a solar energy farm in rural northeast Pasco is moving from county commission chambers to circuit court rooms.

Sandra Noble, a Blanton homeowner, has filed two legal claims in Pasco Circuit Court seeking to overturn the county’s approval of Tampa Electric Co.’s planned solar energy facility on 382 acres abutting her property.

The utility recently paid more than $6.8 million for the land upon which it plans to install 470,000 solar panels for a 55-megawatt system along Blanton Road. Prior to the lawsuit, Tampa Electric said its goal was to be operational before the end of 2019.

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

That land plan designates northeast Pasco, including the planned solar farm site, as an overlay district to preserve the area’s rural, agricultural characteristics and rolling hills and scenic vistas from sprawling development.

Noble and other neighbors, Gordon and Kathleen Comer, owners of the 243-acre Platt Road Farms-78 LLC, appealed the Planning Commission decision to the full county commission. But, after a hearing in September, commissioners affirmed the earlier approval, saying state law didn’t allow them to prohibit solar energy collectors.

In a circuit court filing Oct. 8, Noble asked the court to review the county commission’s decision denying the appeal, saying it violated her right to due process. In that claim, the court’s decision would be based only on a review of the evidence and testimony at the commission hearing. That case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Daniel Diskey.

Noble “will be significantly and adversely affected’’ by the county decision “based on her interest in her property, in maintaining and protecting existing nature, use density and intensity of use of the rural property, health and safety, densities and intensities of development and compatibility of adjacent land uses,’’ her claim stated.

Separately, Noble filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction and declaratory relief, which would allow the court to hear new testimony beyond what was offered at the county government hearings. That case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Linda Baab.

Noble’s attorney, Rena Frazier, declined comment. Through their spokespersons, both the Pasco legal staff and Tampa Electric officials said they did not comment on pending litigation. Likewise, Gordon Comer previously declined comment on whether he, too, would file further legal action.

The plant is part of Tampa Electric's plan to install 6 million solar panels in 10 sites over the next three years. The Pasco project represents a $75 million investment in solar energy, Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs has said.

The $6.8 million worth of land purchases included just less than $4.45 million to Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and his wife, Kathy, for 252 acres. The couple bought the land, targeted previously for residential development, from a subsidiary of Wells Fargo in May 2016 for $1.5 million.

Contact C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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