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The Memo of Understanding (MOU) that the City of Tallahassee and Gulf Power Company signed recently, relative to the high-voltage line, appears to have effectively muted a portion of the project's opposition, as the agreement possibly realigns part of the route in Jefferson County.
The MOU, which allows Gulf Power to collocate its 161-kilovolt line along a segment of the City of Tallahassee's utility lines, appears will spare the small communities of Thomas City and Wacissa in Jefferson County, as well as most of Tram Road.
The new route, however, does not spare Waukeenah Highway or the community of Waukeenah, both of which remain very much in the path of the 176-mile-long transmission line that is expected to run from Columbia County in the east to Jackson County in the west.
As best as can be determined, the line will still enter Jefferson County from Madison County alongside I-10, turn south alongside the Waukeenah Highway and go past U.S. 27 to near Peter Brown Road, and then head west along the Florida Gas Transmission (FGT) easement into Leon County.
It all hinges on Gulf Power being able to secure the use of the FGT easement, a collocation that appears was still not yet a certainty last week.
“Let's say it's not yet written in concrete, but that the concrete's been mixed and it's ready to be poured,” Attorney Michael Tomkiewicz – of the Gray Robinson law firm in Tallahassee – told the Monticello News on Friday, June 28, about the new route.
Meaning, Tomkiewicz said, that if the collocation on the FGT easement failed to come to fruition for whatever reason, the original route would likely be back in play. Suggesting, he admitted, that it was not unthinkable that Gulf Power could have used the FGT easement as a gambit to secure the MOU with no guarantee of a follow through.
Barring some unforeseen development, however, Tomkiewicz said the likelihood was that the Waukeenah Highway and Waukeenah community will not be spared, whatever the route is that ultimately selelcted.
“If we can't stop it, and it doesn't look like we can at this point, at some point they (Gulf Power) will condemn the land and it becomes a matter of compensation,” said Tomkiewicz, who as of last week represented 29 local landowners.
His advice to property owners remained that they lawyer up and not accept Gulf Power's monetary offers for easements, which offers he said continued absent the presentation of appraisals.
Should Gulf Power gain easement acquisitions via the offers, he said, it would be to the company's advantage and property owners would have no say in the matter afterwards.
The way it was supposed to work going forward, Tomkiewicz said, was that Gulf Power will present property owners with appraisals and makes written offers for voluntary acquisitions. If no agreements can be reached, he said, the company would then file suits in court for the takings and hearings held, after which the company would deposit money with the court and take the lands.
“After that, we fight about the compensation in the courts,” Tomkiewicz said, emphasizing the critical nature of the appraisals and written offers, as these set the baselines for compensations.
“Say they offer a property owner $20,000 and deposit the money and take the land,” Tomkiewicz said. “Maybe we say it's worth $50,000. We will then mediate or go to court over the $30,000.”
In Florida too, he reiterated, property owners are entitle to full compensation for their lands, not just compensation, as is the case under federal law and in most other states.
Full compensation means that the taking authority must pay the property owner not only for the lands but also for their attorneys and experts' fees.
Utility companies, Tomkiewicz said, believed in paying solely for the easement they take, not for the impact on the rest of the land. But when the matter went to court, he said, the attorneys for the property owners would have experts do analyses and appraisers that would show the total impact on the remainder of the property, including the removal of trees and buffers, market depreciation, potential health risks from transmission lines and other factors.
But until the appraisals were presented, it remained a waiting game, Tomkiewicz said.
“In Suwannee and Columbia counties the company is already moving forward,” he said. “But they haven't given us appraisals here yet.”
Tomkiewicz said that far as he knew, the project was still set for completion in 2020, which meant that things should be moving forward soon. But it could be, he added, that the legal battle over compensation well outlasted the project's completion.
The overarching entity over the project is NextEra Energy, the parent company of Gulf Power and Florida Power and Light. The company's given rationale for the transmission line, which will not benefit Jefferson County other than for property taxes and ancillary economic benefits during the construction phase, is to enhanced the system's resiliency and reliability for customers.