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This week’s highs and lows across Tampa Bay and Florida
Sensible plea deal, finding lost Black cemeteries and another local push for solar
Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of TECO Energy, is seeking permission to build a solar farm on nearly 105 vacant acres at U.S. 41 and Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County.
Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of TECO Energy, is seeking permission to build a solar farm on nearly 105 vacant acres at U.S. 41 and Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 8

TECO’s solar push. Hillsborough County has an opportunity to hit a two-fer on the environmental front. Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of TECO Energy, is seeking permission from the Hillsborough County Commission to turn nearly 105 vacant acres at U.S. 41 and Big Bend Road into a solar farm. As a precursor to development, the utility needs a change to the county’s comprehensive land plan. The property is currently designated to allow more than 1,200 homes or up to 650,000 square feet of retail space; the utility wants to change the land category to exclude residential and most commercial, but allow heavy industrial use. If approved, the project could serve as a buffer of sorts in fast-growing south county. An initial transportation analysis showed a net reduction of new daily traffic for the solar farm compared to residential or large-scale commercial development. “I think it would be excellent news to hear that it’s a solar farm,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp. “It seems like a good fit for that area.” Indeed, it does. Beyond forestalling more suburban sprawl, the farm would bolster TECO’s push into solar. “By the end of 2023, we’ll have enough solar energy to power 200,000 homes, which will be the highest percentage of solar power of any utility in the state,” said utility spokesperson Cherie Jacobs. The first public hearing on the company’s request is scheduled for Thursday.

One loss, not two. It’s not every day that the criminal justice system ably balances punishment and mercy. But the plea deal agreed to by a Hillsborough County judge and prosecutors has kept the tragedy of one lost life from consuming another. Nakeeba Ryan faced the possibility of years in state prison after prosecutors said she hit 14-year-old Asucena “Susie” Gomez-Hernandez on North 15th Street in January 2020. Ryan, 26, pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a crash involving a death. The charge carries a maximum of 30 years in prison, with a mandatory minimum sentence of four years. But a judge can waive that mandatory sentence if a defendant was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time. And that’s what Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christine A. Marlewski decided; as part of the agreement, Marlewski withheld adjudication — which means Ryan is not a convicted felon — and sentenced Ryan to 60 days in jail followed by five years of probation. Her driver’s license has been revoked for three years and she must complete 100 hours of community service. The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office said the move was appropriate because Ryan had no prior criminal history and was not at fault in the crash, but rather “panicked” and left the scene. Occurring against the backdrop of this terrible loss to the Gomez-Hernandez family, it’s a credit that prosecutors and the judge looked to make something positive from this anguished episode.

Find the cemeteries. How many other historic Black cemeteries in Florida have been paved over by development — ignored and lost to history? That’s a mystery that legislation proposed for the upcoming legislative session hopes to answer. For decades, the Tampa Bay area’s Black community claimed their historic cemeteries were erased by developments. But their allegations were ignored, until the Tampa Bay Times launched a series of investigations beginning in 2019. Erased and forgotten Black cemeteries have since been discovered on both sides of Tampa Bay, and with more likely to be rediscovered, two area lawmakers have filed legislation to unearth this piece of Florida history. The bill by Sen. Janet Cruz and Rep. Fentrice Driskell, both Tampa Democrats, would help find and protect abandoned cemeteries. The measure would require property owners to provide the state access to conduct research and noninvasive searches if the evidence warranted so. Since 2019, archaeologists have confirmed that four historic Black cemeteries were built over in the Tampa Bay area — Zion Cemetery, Port Tampa Cemetery, St. Matthews Baptist Church Cemetery and North Greenwood Cemetery. Ridgewood Cemetery for the indigent and unknown was discovered on Tampa’s King High School campus. Nearly all the burials there were Black people. These were civic achievements in Tampa Bay, but this bill is an important step toward memorializing these sites statewide. It’s a chance to honor the lives of our earlier Floridians and enrich our state’s history.

Governor, not king. A Senate bill filed this week for the legislative session that begins Tuesday would allow the governor to bypass the state Cabinet in appointing the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. How convenient; Gov. Ron DeSantis did just that in August, unilaterally naming Shawn Hamilton to the post — even though state law expressly requires Cabinet approval, and which previous appointees to the job secured. SB 1658, filed by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, should put an end to the fantasy that DeSantis acted within his authority. If the governor had sole power to appoint the environmental secretary, why would a bill propose to eliminate “with the concurrence of three members of the Cabinet” from the statute? This is another attempt to dismantle what checks and balances exist in Tallahassee. Florida’s environment is its greatest resource; the person appointed to protect it should have broad public support. And on a simpler note, Floridians should expect governors to comply with the law, not the other way around.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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