Some residents and passers-by near one of DeBary’s most prominent neighborhoods have been shocked to see large-scale clear-cutting and burning of long-forested land in the River City.

The land affected is about 445 acres of pine uplands owned by Duke Energy, north of Highbanks Road and west of Donald E. Smith Boulevard, near DeBary Plantation and DeBary Plantation West.

A Duke Energy spokeswoman says the clearing is all part of the plan for a new large-scale solar-energy facility in the city.

“The growth and increased demand in the DeBary area have created a need for Duke Energy to upgrade the electric system in the community,” Duke spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said. “This project will meet the existing demand and anticipated future growth in the area and will ensure continued reliability.”

Gibbs said the energy produced by the 300,000 solar panels placed on the site will generate an estimated 75 megawatts of electricity daily, enough to meet the demands of about 21,000 homes.

The solar facility, already approved by the DeBary City Council, will cost about $100 million, and it is part of the utility’s goal of building 10 such projects throughout Florida over the next 10 years.

But some have questioned the necessity of deforesting hundreds of acres near the St. Johns River, instead of seeking out already-flattened — even paved — locations for the solar panels.

Orange City resident and avid cyclist Strickland frequently rides along the edge of the Duke Energy parcel. He was dismayed to see the destruction of the forest.

“They turn around and go into a forest where you have indigo snakes, gopher tortoises and large herds of deer and turkey,” he said. “It’s just a really beautiful wilderness.”

Many solar advocates argue for smaller-scale distributed generation projects, with small amounts of solar cells placed in already-developed land like shopping-center parking lots.

Indeed, Duke Energy is testing a smaller-scale “microgrid” solar-and-battery system in North Carolina.

However, the company says part of the reason they selected the DeBary site was its proximity to the company’s existing electrical facilities.

“The site was selected for a variety of reasons including flat land, elevation as it pertains to flooding, proximity to our facilities and in this case Duke Energy owns the land,” Gibbs said.

The company said it completed environmental assessments for the project, as well.

“Duke Energy conducted environmental studies and assessments to identify any environmental or wildlife impacts and any mitigation processes that may be required,” Gibbs said. “The company will comply with all regulations and laws applicable to this project site. The project avoided impacts to wetlands.”

State permits show the company was approved to relocate 136 gopher tortoises from the site to another parcel in Port Orange, at a cost of $31,900.

The DeBary City Council gave its blessing to the project in March, after Duke agreed to expand vegetative buffers on the east, north and south sides of the project — where it abuts existing development — to 200 feet, from the originally proposed 50 feet.

DeBary City Manager Carmen Rosamonda said city officials have received some complaints.

“The only calls we’ve gotten on that is about the burning [of cut trees] and the smoke blowing,” he said.

Gibbs said Duke has been a good neighbor throughout the project, holding several pre-construction community meetings and giving way on issues like the vegetative buffer width around the project.

“Duke Energy also authorized Volusia County to construct, operate and maintain the 12-foot-wide multiuse trail over portions of Duke Energy property, providing the ability for the connection to be built and enjoyed by the community,” she said.

While the site looks like a barren scar on the Earth at the moment, Gibbs pointed out there will ultimately be grasses planted under much of the solar farm.

“The finished project will include mulch and seeding which will eventually become grass. Some areas of the site will become pollinator sites,” she said.

About 124 acres of trees will be preserved on the site, Gibbs added.

DeBary’s Rosamonda said the project could be ready to generate watts by May 2020.

Still, the way Duke Energy is going about building the project isn’t much solace to environmentalists like Strickland.

“I just don’t understand how we continue to lose so much forest,” he said. “It’s a terrible, terrible waste, and a bad plan, and our government just agrees to it outright. Nobody’s looking at the long-standing record of forest depletion in West Volusia.”

— Beacon staff writers Eli Witek and Al Everson contributed to this report.