Pamela Noto chose her home in The Bridges in FishHawk Ranch specifically because of its panoramic view of the scenic woods and ponds on the conservation area on two sides of her lot.
Her Realtor never told her the wooded area was destined to become a transmission line corridor.
"We were told the CSX railroad corridor behind our homes was owned by TECO," said Noto. "But we were never told they intended to erect transmission lines through the area. Now, instead of woods, we'll have a panoramic view of transmission lines."
Her neighbor, Burt Lancaster, also was oblivious to the fact that TECO was considering building a transmission line through the wooded conservation area behind his home. In fact, he paid a premium for his lot because it sat on a conservation area.
Noto and Lancaster were among approximately 300 angry residents who packed into in FishHawk Ranch on May 24 to determine what they can do to halt Tampa Electric Co.'s plans to raze the woods and .
They found allies for their cause in state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview; Audi Canney, legislative aide to state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico; and Newland Communities Senior Vice President Rick Harcrow.
Originally slated to take place in a small meeting room at The Palmetto Club, club employees were forced to move the meeting to the banquet room when droves of residents began arriving at The Palmetto Club shortly before the start of the 6:30 p.m. meeting.
Meeting organizer Christie VanVleet said she was expecting a maximum of 45 people and was overwhelmed by the turnout.
Burgin said she also was unprepared for the crowd.
"I knew it was a big issue. I've had many phone calls from many residents," she said. "But I did not expect this level of attendance. Obviously, the community is very concerned."
TECO's Plans 'a Travesty?'
VanVleet, who lives in The Bridges, said she and her husband, Jason, were first alerted of TECO's plans to build a transmission corridor through the area when she received a letter from TECO in the mail.
"We moved into this perfect, quiet, beautiful area never suspecting what TECO was planning," said VanVleet. "As soon as we got the letter from TECO, we started investigating further."
What the VanVleets discovered is TECO was considering erecting six high-voltage transmission lines carrying 230 kilovolts of electricity from Wimauma to FishHawk Ranch, terminating near the Publix and Sonic Drive-In on FishHawk Boulevard. The transmission lines would run between the Bridges and Channing Park where TECO owns an abandoned CSX railroad line.
However, the VanVleets said they were surprised to learn that TECO didn't plan to run the lines along the old railroad corridor. Instead, the utility company wants to run the lines on the FishHawk Ranch side of the trails that meander through the 200-foot-wide conservation area.
"I think people were shocked how close the lines are to our homes," said VanVleet. "They won't go behind the trees. They'll go through the trees."
This was contrary to everything the residents of The Bridges had been told when they purchased their homes starting in 2004. Builders and Realtors had told them the wooded area served as a buffer between The Bridges and Channing Park and was a dedicated conservation space. Many residents said they paid $10,000 to $30,000 more for their lots backing up to the conservation space.
"This is just a travesty," said resident Roger Rush. "Any caring person who saw what this would do to this beautiful area would find an alternative. I can't believe TECO is even considering this."
What the Developer Knew
There was no representative from TECO at the meeting. However, Harcrow of Newland Communities, the company that developed FishHawk Ranch, admitted that Newland was aware of TECO's plans to install a power line through the area. But under the original agreement with TECO, which involved exchanging the 200-foot-wide swath of right of way behind The Bridges, TECO was obligated to install underground lines. It wasn't until later that TECO changed its plans and decided to install the high-voltage transmission lines, which would be too costly to place underground.
"TECO and Newland came to an agreement on Dec. 24, 2003, a Christmas present for the community, and decided that TECO would have the right to go aerial and Newland would use the other half of the 100-foot section for water retention ponds, allowing them to have additional, saleable lots," said resident Jason VanVleet. Harcrow acknowledged that VanVleet's facts were correct.
The transmission lines are part of a 40-mile electrical corridor stretching from Polk County to FishHawk, designed to provide additional electricity to TECO's power grid.
Harcrow also said he was unaware that residents were told the swath of land behind their homes was a conservation area and were paying premiums for the lots. He said maps of the area available at FishHawk's Welcome Center as early as 2004 clearly delineate the area as a power corridor.
However, residents said they had maps from Realtors and builders that designated the area as conservation. And residents questioned why the maps didn't show the potential power corridor on FishHawk property. In addition, the surveys that residents have incorrectly reported a 200-foot buffer.
In fact, the FishHawk Community Development District II, which manages the open spaces in the community, has been maintaining the wooded property as a conservation area using residents' fees, said CDD board member Ruth Brown.
Bond funds were used to pay for the construction of the water retention funds in the transaction that enabled this to become a power corridor, she emphasized.
"The CDD does use dues to maintain the property," she said, adding that the CDD II, which oversees The Bridges, was told TECO planned to install underground lines beneath the railroad corridor. She said the CDD was as surprised as the residents to learn TECO's plans to install 120-foot-tall transmission towers along the nature trail, the equivalent of a 12-story building in height.
"We were told, when TECO builds, we'll have 60 days to remove the trail," she said.
Protesters Prepare to Battle
Canney urged the residents to get organized and be prepared to battle TECO's plans in front of the Florida Public Service Commission, which won't be easy because the PSC tends to favor the utilities, she said.
She's been involved in three power line battles, including plans to install power lines behind her own home. And, each time, the PSC has voted in favor of the utility.
"We're here to help you understand how your voices can make a difference," said Burgin.
Harcrow said Newland's position is the same of the residents.
"We would like this power line to go away," he said, noting that Newland has been in talks with TECO.
However, if TECO must construct the lines, Newland would prefer they be constructed along the rail corridor and not along the 200-foot buffer next to The Bridges.
"Our unified plea is we don't want to see it in the 200-foot buffer," he said. "We want it in the railroad corridor. Newland takes the position that we want this power lines as far away from The Bridges as possible."
His declaration elicited protests from the residents of Channing Park attending the May 24 meeting because the railroad corridor abuts their subdivision. Channing Park is not a Newlands community.
Harcrow quickly added that the transmission line isn't set in stone.
"The other critical point is it's not a foregone conclusion that the power lines will go here," he said. "TECO has to demonstrate to the PSC how they're going to accommodate growth. As such, TECO is now going through a bid process with other power generators to see if they can make up the difference. Right now, they have two or more qualified bids from other utilities. That would cause this power line not to be built."
This possibility wouldn't make the corridor go away, said Jason VanVleet. TECO would always have the right to come back "tomorrow."
But if TECO decides to go ahead with constructing the transmission lines now, residents wanted to know if they have any recourse. They are not only concerned about losing the conservation area but are worried about the impact on their property values and the possible health impacts living so close to major transmission lines.
Canney told residents they have two possible options for defeating plans to install transmission lines through their neighborhoods.
She advised them to find 10 people to serve on a committee to put together a strategy to go before the PSC, noting that TECO is expected to file for a certificate of need in mid to late August, which would mean the first PSC hearing would take place in October.
Due to the interest in the lines, she said Storms will request that the PSC hold its hearing in the FishHawk area rather than in Tallahassee.
Appearing before the PSC involves filing affidavits for oral argument in a timely manner, she said. She recommended that five or six residents prepare to give testimony to the PSC.
"We will do whatever we can to help you prepare," she added.
Once the request goes before the PSC, whose members are appointed by the Senate, the discussion will center around the need for more power.
"They don't care about health effects, the environmental impacts or the visual impacts," she said.
If the PSC approves TECO's certificate of need, it will trigger a review by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
"That's your silver lining," Canney said. "They're more interested in the residents' perspective."
Above all, said Canney, it's important that residents make their voices heard.
"If you're silent, it means there's no opposition," she said.
In the meantime, Burgin said residents can appeal directly to TECO by calling 813-275-3334 or by visiting TECO's website and taking the customer survey.