Tampa Electric Co. has said its Mountain View Solar project near Dade City represented a $75 million investment in alternative energy. The investing began in earnest last week when the utility paid more than $6.8 million for 382 acres in the rural community of Blanton.
The largest beneficiaries were Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and his wife, Kathy. The Simpsons nearly tripled their 2016 investment, selling 252 acres for just less than $4.45 million. The couple bought the land, targeted previously for residential development, from a subsidiary of Wells Fargo in May 2016 for $1.5 million.
The Tampa Electric transactions, recorded Sept. 17 in Pasco County, also included $885,800 to James Grove and Ranch for 60 acres; $887,000 to William and Alice Jordan for 43 acres and $613,400 to Edwards Stacey Mignon Jordan for nearly 28 acres. Overall, the utility paid approximately $17,800 per acre for the land along both sides of Blanton Road and south of Frazee Hill Road.
Simpson noted the solar farm eliminated public concerns about increased traffic, water use and school crowding that would have accompanied residential development.
"And you have a renewable, sustainable energy source,'' he said. "I believe five years from now that the community is going to be very pleased with results of this project.''
Tampa Electric plans to build a 55-megawatt system there, using approximately 470,000 solar panels, each measuring two feet across and four feet deep, on 205 acres. The rest of the property includes some wetlands, a required preserve for an eagle's nest and visual buffers. The utility said its goal is to be operational before the end of 2019.
County approval of the permit allowing the project still faces a potential court challenge. Earlier this month, Gordon and Kathleen Comer, owners of the 243-acre Platt Road Farms, and Sandra Noble of Zia Ridge Lane appealed unsuccessfully to the Pasco Commission to overturn the Planning Commission's April 9 approval.
The county's land development code gives the appointed Planning Commission the authority to grant so-called special exception permits. County commissioners, sitting as a quasi-judicial body, hears appeals of the planning commission's decisions. In this instance, a county staff member said Tampa Electric needed a special exception permit and the commission, after the fact, amended its code to mirror that recommendation.
Both Gordon Comer and Noble's attorney, Rena Frazier of Tampa, declined comment about possible litigation.
The project drew neighbors' objections because it is situated in an area the county has designated as its Northeast rural protection overlay district. It is intended to guard the community's hilltop elevations, scenic vistas and agricultural character from sprawl.
The county said the solar project is appropriate for the agricultural area while neighbors called it a misplaced heavy industrial use.
ESA Renewables, with offices in Sanford, but based in Castellón, Spain, initially proposed a 15-megawatt, 90-acre solar panel farm on the Simpson property in spring 2017. Later, Tampa Electric became part of the concept and the project grew nearly fourfold in size.
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The Simpsons' former land had been owned by the Touchton family trust and then an investment firm in Hernando County.
In 2004, the land sold for just less than $4.4 million to a group called Berry Hill Estates Ltd., which proposed a housing development of the same name. It never came to fruition, and Wells Fargo obtained the property after a 2011 foreclosure lawsuit. The bank's real estate arm attempted to obtain county approval for a residential project called College Hill because of its close proximity to the Pasco-Hernando State College campus. Amid stiff opposition from many of the same people opposed to the solar project, Wells Fargo abandoned the housing idea and sold the land to the Simpsons two years ago.
Contact C.T. Bowen at email@example.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2