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Jefferson County officials have hired an attorney to represent them in their interactions with representatives of NextEra, the energy company that is proposing to place a high-voltage transmission line across the county.
On Thursday, Aug. 15, the Jefferson County Commission selected Attorney David Collins to represent the board in its future dealings with the power company.
Collins, a local attorney with 36 years of experience, told the commission that he wasn't seeking the job for the money or glory as much as to help the county as a resident.
“I won't charge you,” Collins said, pausing a second before adding, “very much.”
He also told the the commission that he didn't see the issue as being overly complex.
“One of your commissioners has offered a proposal for an alternate route that if it's approved, we'll have no legal issue,” Collins said in his introductory remark to the board. “This is not a complex legal issue. It's a political flash issue.”
Collins was referring to Commissioner Stephen Walker's proposal to NextEra that it change the route of the transmission line so that it would exit I-10 at U.S. 19, follow U.S. 19 south to U.S 27, U.S. 27 west to just past Cody Church Road, and then cut across the St. Marks Park and onto the Florida Gas Transmission (FGT) pipeline easement, which it would follow into Leon County.
Currently, NextEra's proposed route calls for the transmission line to exit I-10 at Waukeenah Highway, and then travel south on Waukeenah Highway to the FGT easement and into Leon County.
The line runs a total of 176 miles, from Lake City on the east to Marianna on the west, the rationale for the line that it will increase reliability and resiliency for the two systems. Those two systems are Florida Power and Light on the east, and Georgia Power on the west, both of which are subsidiaries of NextEra.
Even as the commission was appointing Collins to represent it, however, a couple of the property owners whose lands will be impacted by the transmission line pointed out that NextEra had already applied for the environmental permitting. Which permitting, once realized, they said, would make the route near impossible to change. These residents urged the commission and Collins not to waste any time, but to contact the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) immediately, as the permit issuance was imminent, they said.
“If you're not to the FDEP by next week, you can kiss this goodbye,” resident Debbie Brock told the commission and Collins.
Following which comment, Commission Chairwoman Betsy Barfield asked Collins if he were up to the task and up to speed on the project.
Collins expressed confidence in his ability to get the power company's attention.
“I wasn't aware of the time deadline,” Collins said of the FDEP's potential permitting of the project. “But that's not the end of the road in terms of litigating and negotiating. In the end, it's litigating that gets big folks' attention.”
Competing for the job with Collins was Tallahassee Attorney William C. Garner, who also submitted a proposal for legal representation of the county. In his written proposal to the board, Garner cited having worked as an advisor to the Florida Public Service Commission, plus having years of experience working both with and against utility companies “in matters ranging from negotiation of territory swaps, to establishment of lighting districts, to negotiations of franchise agreements, to opposition to major transmission line projects.”
The commission's choice of Collins was unanimous.
Local officials decided to seek legal counsel to represent them in their dealings with NextEra in mid July, after voicing displeasure with the energy company's alleged lack of transparency and cooperation. At the same time, they adopted a resolution registering their concerns and offering the alternate route for NextEra to consider.
The aim of the alternate route, which Commissioner Stephen Walker proposed, is to keep the high-voltage transmission line off the county's rural and residential two-lane roads and place it on the more appropriate four-lane roads.
Even as Walker made the proposal, however, he acknowledge that NextEra might not respond to it. Still, he felt it incumbent to make the effort.
“If we don't do something, we know what's going to happen,” Walker said. “If NextEra can't run the route that we're suggesting, let them prove it to us. It will at least make the process transparent, if nothing else.”
According to NextEra's timetable, the project is expected to be completed by 2020.