Done deal? Imminent domain? Statute 74?
ECB Publishing, Inc.
The issue of the proposed high-voltage transmission line surfaced recently at the Jefferson County Commission meeting, raised by a concerned property owner whose land lies in the path of the designated route.
Josh Goodwin, who identified himself as an employee of the Division of Historical Resources in the Florida Department of State as well as an owner of a historic home on Waukeenah Highway, addressed the commission on Thursday evening, April 4, both to express concern and seek answers.
Godwin noted that folks in the Wacissa and Waukeenah areas and along Tram Road had, in recent months, taken notice of surveyors in their neighborhoods and had, upon asking questions, first learned about the project.
“Then 12 days ago I was contacted by a woman from Doyle Land Services on behalf of Gulf Power, asking for permission for a cultural survey on my property,” Godwin said.
The woman, he said, informed him that the survey was connected to a utility project that was coming to the area. The Doyle Land Services Inc. is a Louisiana-based company that provides land services in support of the energy industry throughout the country.
Curious about the project, especially after seeing anti-transmission signs along Tram Road, Godwin said he called Doyle Land Services the next day and learned that the project involved a 161-kilovolt transmission line on 90-foot tall concrete poles that would extend from Lake City to Marianna.
He described the line's proposed route as coming west alongside I-10 from Madison County, turning south at Waukeenah Highway and running along the south side of this road to Tram Road at Wacissa, then following Tram Road to Capital Circle in Leon County.
Godwin said he next got his hands on a report from the Division of Historical Resources, which does cultural resource assessment surveys of projects that may impact cultural and historical assets. The survey, he said, contained a map depicting the project's area of potential effect.
“Usually theses surveys are kicked off because of some ordinance,” Godwin said. “Because of the stage that this project is in, however, it wasn't kicked off by an ordinance. Gulf Power is doing this as due diligence ahead of the project, so when it gets to a point where the project is ready to go, it will already be taken care of.”
The area of potential effect, Godwin explained, didn't necessarily delineate the power line's exact route. In fact, the map depicted the area of potential impact to be 100 feet wide, whereas the project's actual width was 15 feet, he said. Meaning that the power line could go anywhere within the 100-foot area of potential effect.
The map, Godwin said, represented the first and best scene-by-scene picture of where the line might be going and how it might affect property owners along its route.
He mentioned a meeting of concerned property owners that had taken place in Leon County on the previous evening, noting that not a few residents along Tram Road had already been contacted by the power company about easement acquisition.
“I feel like this project is at odds with the county's mission statement,” Godwin said, observing that its very industrial nature was contrary to the county's rural character, as well as its stated mission, which is to preserve, protect and promote the community's cultural, historic and natural resources.
Godwin wondered if anything could be done about the line, given
that utility companies possess the power of imminent domain, which allows them to take land by condemnation, so long as they paid what was deemed to be fair market value.
His purpose, he said, was to alert residents about the project as well as to learn from the officials what they knew about it and if what the power company was presenting was the final plan? In other words, he wanted to know, was there room for an alternative route?
“Or is this set in stone?” Godwin asked “And if it is set in stone, is there any way that we can get some kind of confirmation from the power company of what land it's going to affect? I mean, what can we expect if we live along the Waukeenah Highway or Tram Road. Is our whole property going to be condemned or a portion of it taken for an easement?”
To his understanding, he said, the project was set to begin in April, 2020, and be completed by December, 2020.
The commissioners basically confessed knowing little about the project, as well as having little say about it.
“We don't know anymore than what you know,” said Attorney Scott Shirley, speaking on behalf of the board. “In fact, you know quite a bit more than I know right now.”
The board's only knowledge, he said, came from concerned citizens' questions and observations.
County officials, he further said, had not been contacted by the state, nor had he had a chance to to research the matter. Should a uniform transmission line siting proceeding be held, however, county officials would be part of the proceeding, he said. But he would have to research the issue to determine whether the law required such a proceeding in this instance, he said.
Shirley offered that if citizens were to refuse to grant easement and the power company were to proceed with imminent domain, the process was designed to afford property owners some protections and ensure for their financial compensation. Also, citizens' attorneys fees would have to be reimbursed by the condemning entity, he said.
Shirley advised that any citizen wanting to learn more about imminent domain proceedings should contact the county's planning office, where he had left contact information for a couple of attorneys who specialized in this particular aspect of the law and could advise the citizens.
Godwin, however, raised a concern. He noted that that Talquin Electric Cooperative General Manager Tracy Bensley had attended the property owners' recent meetings in Tallahassee and had cautioned against the citizens lawyering up.
“He gave a word of caution that were all the citizens to lawyer up, and Gulf Power were to find out about it, the power company might go right into statue 74 for quick take proceedings,” Godwin said.
Shirley conceded that such was a possibility. But he disagreed that the citizens shouldn't seek legal counsel. He said if the power company decided to use imminent domain, it would first have to do an appraisal, then take the land and deposit the appraised amount in the court treasury, which money the property owner could access immediately.
“Then the issue of valuation would have to be tried in a jury trial,” Shirley said. “So you would still have a chance to argue about the value of the property.”
Moreover, he said, it was possible that in imminent domain proceeding, not only the value of the parcel taken was calculated into the amount, but also calculated was the effect on the remainder of the parcel. So it could be, he said, that there were additional monies that the power company wouldn't necessarily offer right upfront but that property owners would be entitled to receive.
Walker alone on the commission spoke up. He offered that if the county had any say in an alternative route, which he didn't think it had, he would prefer to see the power company turn the line south at I-10 and follow U.S. 19 to U.S. 27 and then west to Leon County.
“I think that the line going down a four-lane road is more appropriate than it going down a two-lane road,” Walker said.
The problem with this scenario, Shirley said, was that Duke Energy already had a transmission line on U.S. 19. He further noted that 17 or 18 years ago, when the latter line had been proposed, the county had nearly gotten into a legal battle with the utility company but had ultimately decided that the likelihood of winning wasn't substantial enough to justify the legal costs.
Shirley promised to return to the board with more information on the transmission line in the coming weeks.
Residents, meanwhile, continue to express concern and others vowed to fight the project. In an email to the Monticello News, one resident characterized the line as “all pain and no gain for Leon and Jefferson,” noting that neither county was within the NextEra Energy service area.
NextEra Energy Inc. is the parent company of Florida Power and Light Company and Gulf Power, which it acquired in January 2019.
“This out-of-town, profit-making behemoth of a company wants to take residents’ land – even by forced sale,” emailed Debi Brock. “Far from having 'little say in the matter,' county officials have a responsibility to protect their hardworking, tax-paying constituents from this kind of threat.”
She cited among the project's negatives damage to the wetlands, tree loss along the rural two-lane road, devalued properties and potential harm to an environmentally sensitive area.
Catherine Deloney was another who emailed the Monticello News. Deloney, who identified herself as a member of the citizens' opposition group, made a point of saying that in discussions with various officials, including two from state permitting agencies, Gulf Power had yet to apply for a project permit.
“NextEra really has no concern for any physical or environmental impact in our areas,” Deloney emailed. “They strictly chose this route as being the less financial burden on them. The only reason any of us even found out about the project (including county officials) was they got ahead of themselves in soliciting purchase of easements from residents along the route in Leon County.”