ECB Publishing, Inc.
Timothy Bryant, the senior manager of external affairs for new development at NextEra Florida Renewables, came before the Jefferson County Commission last week both to provide information and answer questions about the high-voltage transmission line that many residents here are concerned will impact their properties.
Bryant began by saying that he wanted to dispel some of the misinformation being promulgated about the project by the media and others. He followed with an overview of the transmission line and the rationale for the selected route, which he described as running 176 miles from Jackson County to Columbia County. He said the project began when NextEra acquired Gulf Power earlier this year and recognized that it would benefit northwest Florida customers if resiliency and reliability were added to the system.
Bryant described the route selection process as beginning with desktop analyses based on aerial photography and then refined by consideration of a host of factors, including safety and environmental concerns and future plans. In February, he said, the company had deployed crew to survey the route and was now in the process of preparing the permit application.
One of the elemental questions asked of Bryant was why the proposed line veered off the I-10 corridor at Waukeenah Highway, followed this rural two-lane road to Tram Road at Wacissa, and then followed Tram Road, another two-lane road, west into Leon County? Why not simply follow the I-10 corridor straight across?
Bryant offered two reasons. The first, he said, was that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) would not allow the transmission line to collocate on its easement because the project did not meet the FDOT criteria. He didn't define the FDOT criteria.
The second reason, he said, was that the north side of Tallahassee was heavily developed. He said a desktop analysis of a route through the area had indicated that it would require the removal of 80 to 90 houses. Bryant would not identify the specific route considered, saying that such information was irrelevant at this point in the process.
“The important thing is that we didn't want to consider that,” Bryant said of the removal of houses . “So, we looked south to get around Tallahassee.”
Hence, the identification of the Waukeenah Highway and Tram Road as the preferred route into Leon County, he said.
After entering Leon County, he added, the line would to follow the Crawfordville Highway and then cut across the Apalachicola National Forest.
A related question: Why not choose the U.S. 19 to U.S. 27 route into Tallahassee, given that these were four-lane highways and Duke Energy already had lines on them?
Bryant acknowledged the seeming reasonableness of choosing 19 and 27 route. But, he said, to collocate with Duke Energy, it would require rebuilding the latter's infrastructure as well as expanding the easement by about 40 feet. Which expansion, he said, would require the removal of houses.
“We didn't think that was prudent,” Bryant said.
Another question: Why not follow the path of the Florida Gas Transmission Company (FGT) pipeline in the southern portion of the county, as this route was already established and would affect the least number of residents.
Bryant's said the pipeline corridor was under consideration, as were other alternate routes.
This raised another question, one that Bryant appeared not to answer to the property owners' satisfaction, judging from the smirks, groans and muted protest the response elicited. The question was why, if alternate routes were being explored, was the company acquiring easement along the “preferred route?”
Bryant's response, which he repeated several times, was that because of time constraints, engineering necessities, and other factors, activities were being pursued simultaneously, not sequentially. Or as he put it, “in parallel, not in series.”
“We're doing things in parallel, not in a series,” Bryant said several times. “There are a lot of activities that we're doing in parallel to suit the engineering and other needs.”
Hence, the reason for the acquisition of easement along the 176 miles of route, including in Jefferson County, even as alternate routes were being explored, he said.
One resident called it “disingenuous, to say they continue to explore routes and at the same time asking property to give up easement for $1,000.”
Attorney Andrew Prince Brigham, of Brigham Property Rights in Jacksonville, was one of the several attorneys in the room representing affected property owners. Bringham approached the podium with a 4 by 5 feet or so poster showing an enlarged copy of a typical easement acquisition contract from Florida Power and Light Company (FPL), which like Gulf Powers, is a subsidy of NextEra.
Brigham pointed out the contract's language, which he said put landowners at a disadvantage, as it stripped them of all rights while giving the utility company the right to put whatever it wanted on the easement in the future.
He argued that in a fair process as dictated by Florida Law, the company in pre-negotiation procedures was supposed to provide landowners with appraisals and plans so the latter could make fully informed decisions.
“This is an easement that grants the company the right to put in whatever it wants,” Brigham said. “It even includes language for a pipeline. It could be for any kind of substance in the pipeline –
oil, gas. This is an easement for a super corridor. If they were a government entity, they would have to show public purpose.”
He had a follow-up question. If the easement wasn't intended to carry underground utilities, why did the contract identify an underlying easement?
Bryant said the proviso was for cases where underground utilities would prove cost beneficial.
“However, that is not the plan for this particular line,” he said.
As for the contract language represented on the poster, Bryant said it came from an FPL document and was irrelevant to the current project. Interestingly, following this response, a Waukeenah property owner declared that he had been presented with a contract just like the one on the poster or very similar to it only days before and offered $1,000 for his easement.
“They said I couldn't do anything about it,” the man said indignantly. “It was incredible, and so contrary to property rights. It's unbelievable.”
Attorney Mike Tomkiewicz, of Gray Robinson in Tallahassee, which also is representing local property owners, said that his firm continued to request construction plans from Gulf Power and kept getting the response that no such plans existed. All the while, he said, the company was offering to buy easement for $1,000 and saying that the line wouldn't affect structures when structures were clearly in the path of the line.
“A condemning authority that acts in this way is not a good community actor,” Tomkiewicz said.
Bryant's response to the lack of construction plans was that the plans had yet to be finalized, as alternate routes were still under consideration, reiterating his assertion that “a lot of actions are going on in parallel, not in a series.”
Steve McClellan, of Waukeenah, whose family has long resided in the area, said his 94-year-old neighbor had just received a $1,000 check from Gulf Power for the purchase of his easement. He said his 97-year-old father had likewise been presented with a similar offer for the purchase of his easement but hadn't signed.
“A transmission line of this description will ruin the feel of this community,” McClellan said. “There are trees that will be removed from our property that are older than this county. It's just ridiculous that they have to put an industrial device in a rural setting.”
Steve Monroe had concerns about his Waukeenah family home, which he said his grandfather had built and his 88-year-old father still inhabited.
“It will affect his house greatly,” Monroe said of the transmission line, notwithstanding Bryant's assurance that zero houses would be removed because of the line.
Monroe furtehr offered that the proposed 161-kilovolt line was merely to get the project under the threshold for a Public Service Commission review, the idea being to up the voltage line once the route was established.
Monroe said that in talking with Duke Energy people, he had been told that if NextEra's intention was to provide resiliency and reliability to northwest Florida, a 161-KV line would not be enough.
“It will need a bigger line,” Monroe said. “It's like trying to water a watermelon field with a regular water hose.”
Bryant assured him that “it's not in our plans to expand the voltage beyond 161 kilovolts.”
In response to another resident's expressed concern about potential damage to the aquifer or the creation of sinkholes as a result of the placement of the concrete poles in the ground, Bryant said the poles would cause no environmental degradation.
“Based on our experience, the poles will not impact the subsurface water or create sinkholes,” he said, adding that prior to placing the poles, geotechnical surveys and soil borings would be done to ensure the ground could support the structures and no damage would ensue.
He described the concrete poles as being 70 to 110 feet tall and three to four feet in diameter, with their bases to be buried 18 to 20 feet deep in the ground and grouting poured in the holes to secure them in place. He said the poles' spacing would depend on the ability of the ground to support them, as determined by the geotechnical surveys, soil borings and other factors. He justified the poles' height by saying that it was needed so that they could withstand hurricane winds.
Neil Fleckenstein, of Tall Timbers, asked about the FDOT criteria, the effect that collocation with Tallahassee would have on the project, and the possibility of NextEra using poles of a lower height in recognition of the area's rural character.
As to the FDOT criteria, Bryant said the state agency didn't allow electrical utilities within its corridor. Collocation with Tallahassee, he said, would minimize the environmental impacts, lessen the project's footprint and “give us other alternates.” The poles' heights, he said, were determined “on an engineering basis, not aesthetics.”
One of the final questions was what benefits the project would bring Jefferson County?
Bryant cited the creation of 100 construction jobs, the taxes that the utility company would pay for the next 30 to 35 years, and “the general impact on the economy.”
He reiterated that the pipeline corridor was still in play, as were other alternate routes.
“We continue to look at it as an alternate route,” Bryant said of the FGT gas transmission line. “And we continue to look at other routes other than Waukeenah and Tram roads.”
His final words to the audience were that his company planned to hold a joint open house on Tuesday, June 4, for residents of Jefferson and Leon counties, with the time and place yet to be announced as soon as it was determined.