1. Opinion

Editorial: Tampa should hold off selling city land to Tampa Electric

The Tampa City Council is expected to consider this week whether to sell city-owned land east of town to Tampa Electric Co., which might put a solar farm on the site. Helping the local energy provider shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy certainly serves a public purpose. But given the location and size of the property, the city should explore a more creative use that might provide a bigger public benefit. The council wouldn't need much additional time to make a more informed decision.

Under the proposal that goes to council Thursday, the city would sell four parcels along Interstate 4, totaling about 445 acres, in the Dover area, about 15 miles east of downtown Tampa. The city bought the property decades ago for use as a potential well field, though those plans never materialized. The land is now occupied by horses assigned to the Tampa Police Department's mounted patrol. Depending on how much buildable areas are included on the property, the sale could generate $5 million to $8 million. A portion of those proceeds would be used to relocate the horses.

A Tampa Electric spokeswoman said the company was "considering" the site for a solar farm, which might also include battery storage. But contrary to the assurances city staff gave to council April 4, the sales contract does not require Tampa Electric to build a solar farm there. "Solar" is not even mentioned in the purchase agreement, or in the resolution before council authorizing the sale. Council deferred the matter April 4 after several members complained the proposal was rushed and incomplete.

The city maintains the land is unsuited to residential development because it falls outside Hillsborough County's urban service area. It hired a broker to solicit the property and insists the Tampa Electric deal would be a win-win, converting surplus property into a local asset for producing cleaner energy. That could be the case. But this huge block of land might also yield other opportunities the city should explore.

Given Tampa's housing crisis, could the city parlay the land in partnership with the county and private business to build affordable developments in the urban core? In a 2017 report, experts at the Urban Land Institute examining growth along I-4 urged the county to hold the line on urban expansion, at least for now. But it also encouraged the county to develop a strategy for developing this stretch of I-4, pointing out the need to "preserve larger development parcels." Tampa's property, which fronts the interstate, could be used to shape mixed-use developments that are job creators, more sustainable and easier on the environment. That potential is lost once the land is sold.

The purchase agreement gives Tampa Electric time to conduct surveys and testing on the property to ensure it is suitable for the utility's needs. So it's not like Tampa Electric is ready to build a solar farm tomorrow. The city could use the next several months to determine whether the land has more creative public uses. That would give Tampa Electric time to firm up its plans and make a more concrete commitment to a solar farm. A warning by the city attorney that a bill pending in the Legislature could require the county to sign off on any sale doesn't justify a quick decision. After all, why would the county stand in the way of putting government property back on the county tax roll?

Tampa has held this property for decades. It shouldn't mind spending a little more time to determine whether it's getting the biggest bang for the buck.