Florida Power and Light’s plans to run high-voltage transmission lines down U.S. 1 has once again become an election issue in South Miami.
Three candidates are running to become the next mayor of the city of 12,000: Commissioner Valerie Newman, current Mayor Philip Stoddard and community activist Rodney Williams. Early voting starts Saturday.
South Miami’s city leaders have steadfastly opposed FPL’s plans to string 230-kilovolt lines on 80- to 100-foot towers down the city’s busiest corridor. The utility first proposed the route in 2009.
Leaders in South Miami, along with those in neighboring Coral Gables, Pinecrest and Kendall, say the power lines would drag down property values and lead to lost business revenue with their industrial feel.
FPL contends the power lines are crucial to improving reliability at a time of projected population growth. Another proposed corridor would run high-voltage lines on 150-foot towers along the northeastern edge of Everglades National Park.
South Miami has sent the mayor and lobbyists to Tallahassee to oppose the lines, commissioned an economic study to evaluate their impact on property values and contributed to legal bills in the fight to find another route. Though figures were not immediately available, it’s safe to say the city has spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting FPL’s plans.
As a separate issue, the utility company’s franchise agreement is up for negotiation this year. A franchise agreement is basically a contract wherein the city agrees not to compete with FPL, and allows the utility to access city property to provide power. In exchange, FPL collects a fee that goes back to the city. In South Miami, the city gets about $1 million, according to Stoddard.
It’s rare for a city not to approve a franchise agreement. A spokesman for FPL said 200 cities and counties have approved long-term agreements with the utility.
The Miami Herald asked the South Miami mayoral about their stances on issues involving FPL. Here’s what they had to say:
Newman likes to say she’s among the first community leaders who sounded the alarm about FPLs plans.
“I am not for the transmissions line in any way,” she said.
But, Newman said, it’s time to talk about other issues.
“The mayor has used transmission lines as his platform the for last three elections,” Newman said. “It’s time he started talking about issues that really affect the community ….. because there is not one vote that I can take as mayor that is going to affect these transmission lines and the route that they’re going to take.”
Newman argued the city should should focus on issues such as improving its parks, and let other cities affected by the FPL lines take the lead in fighting against them.
“ If Coral Gables and Coconut Grove and Pinecrest want to carry the banner, then let them do it. We’re too small,” she said.
Newman declined to go into specifics about negotiating a new franchise agreement with FPL, saying it would be counter-productive.
“It’s hard to say and I certainly wouldn’t give my hand away because this is part of the negotiation process, just like when you're negotiating with a labor union,” she said.
But she did say that the city should sign an agreement with the utility because to do otherwise would mean South Miami takes a budget hit. And residents would still pay the fee — except FPL would give the money to Miami-Dade County, instead of the city.
She also said the city can also try to make the burial of the power lines along U.S. 1 a condition of signing the franchise agreement. Burying the lines costs between $13.3 million and $18.5 million per mile, according to FPL.
Stoddard has been a vocal opponent of FPL’s plans. He says he would continue his fight against the utility giant if re-elected.
Though an administrative judge approved FPL’s transmission line route through South Miami, the mayor said there is still time to fight the plan at the state level.
The little-known siting board, made up of Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet, still has to give final approval for the route. So Stoddard said the city should continue its lobbying and legal efforts.
“If they fail to take the city’s needs into consideration, we can take it to court,” Stoddard said.
He also takes a tough stance on FPL’s franchise agreement, saying the utility still has to provide power even if there is no contract. Stoddard would like to see a five-year contract, instead of the standard 30 years. An FPL spokesman said he wasn’t aware of any city with an agreement that’s shorter than 30 years.
Stoddard argues the energy landscape is rapidly changing, with solar energy becoming cheaper, and storage options like batteries becoming better and more portable. So the city should have flexibility when it comes to providing power to its residents.
“We’re at the beginning of an energy revolution,” said Stoddard, a biology professor at Florida International University. “So 10 years from now, the home energy system may look very different.”
Williams, who owns a barber shop in the city, said the city should continue efforts to fight the power line route along U.S. 1.
“This is something that the entire community doesn’t want,” Williams said.
But, he said, South Miami shouldn’t spend any more money on the issue. He said he would tap into the talents of community residents — environmentalists, lawyers and the like — to continue the fight without racking up bills.
Still, Williams left himself some wiggle room.
“I think people’s voices were heard and if they wanted to reach into our pockets to fight it, I think we should do it, but only with the support of the people,” he said.
Williams added that he’d like to work with the county and FPL to share the cost of burying the transmission lines “as long as it does not fall back on the city’s financial resources.”
He said he’d like to see a shorter term for the franchise agreement and that he’d use the negotiations as a way to get concessions from FPL on the transmission line issue.
Candidates in the other two races gave their opinions on the FPL issue at a candidate forum Thursday night.
In Commission Group 1, the race to fill the vacancy left by Newman, both candidates oppose the transmission lines.
High school history and government teacher Gabriel Edmond said he approves of the job the mayor has done. He praised Stoddard’s relationship with other cities’ leaders to resist the FPL plan.
“If we speak out, people will listen to us,” he said. “We just have to stand up and fight.”
Donna Shelley, a freelance writer who used to write grants for the city of Miami, said the city should avoid more legal battles and focus on negotiating with FPL over burying the lines underground.
“That means actually talking to them and being civil with them,” she said.
On the issue of signing a franchise agreement, Edmond said he’d research the issue more if he were elected but currently does not support signing a 30-year agreement.
Shelley did not commit one way or the other, but said the city would have to consider what it loses if it doesn’t sign.
“I’m not sure signing the contract is a bad idea,” she said. “A million dollars right out of the general fund is something we’d have to consider if we want to stand by our guns about not negotiating with the electric company.”
In the Group IV race, incumbent Walter Harris said his opposition to the FPL transmission lines is what inspired him to run for office.
“Florida Power and Light wants me out of this seat because they know they’re getting nothing from me,” he said.
Harris said above-ground transmission lines would cost businesses along U.S. 1 a lot of money and affect residents’ health.
Challenger Horace Feliu, a former mayor and commissioner, said he would want work with FPL to use the franchise agreement to get the utility to bury the transmission lines.
“I’m in favor of not 30 years but maybe a lot less,” he said. “But the bottom line is using that franchise agreement as a carrot to bury the lines.”
Harris didn’t say whether he’d oppose or support a franchise agreement, but he said no franchise agreement would mean residents’ bills would go down slightly.