The National Park Service plans to approve a controversial land swap that would avoid erecting massive utility poles through a vital wetland in Everglades National Park and instead let Florida Power & Light string a trio of high voltage power lines along the park’s eastern boundary.
The move, park officials say, will prevent 150-foot tall lines from crossing Shark River Slough and interfering with work aimed at reviving ailing marshes and Florida Bay, which suffered a massive seagrass die-off over the summer and fall.
“This gets us what we need, the ability to flow the water where we need to flow it,” said Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos.
But by trading the land, about 320 acres, instead of buying it outright, some environmentalists say the park service caved to the powerful utility.
It’s a whole new landscape.
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association
“These [poles] are going to be gigantic. It’s a whole new landscape,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “It’s not going to look like a national park with power lines running through it.”
Under the deal, FPL would trade its 7.4-mile stretch, about the width of a football field and running east of the slough, for a 6.5-mile-long strip on the park’s eastern border that totals 260 acres. The utility plans to string three towering high voltage lines to carry power generated by a proposed $24 billion expansion of Turkey Point that would add two new nuclear reactors.
6.5The length in miles of the new corridor on the east border of Everglades National Park
Hammering out the deal has taken more than four years, Ramos said. FPL purchased the land in the 1960s and ’70s, long before a 1989 Congressional act enlarged the park by 107,000 acres.
In a 1996 letter obtained by Schwartz, a park service real estate specialist urged the utility to sell the land for $109,300, the fair market value at the time, to help meet the mission of the newly expanded park. If FPL refused, park officials could seize the land through eminent domain to “fulfill the … congressional mandate,” the letter said.
Over the years, the park service bought 8,455 tracts of land for $76.5 million dollars, said spokeswoman Linda Friar. Of those, about a third were acquired through eminent domain. That left just six property owners: three airboat operators, two radio towers and FPL.
In 2009, FPL quietly secured congressional approval for the land swap as the utility firmed up plans for a proposed Turkey Point expansion that would add two 1,100 megawatt nuclear generators. To accommodate the new juice, the expansion also calls for another major power corridor along U.S. 1 that several cities are fighting in court.
The decision comes as efforts to bring solar energy to the state — activists are trying to collect enough signatures for a referendum that would allow the solar industry to begin selling electricity from roof top panels — heat up. Critics also say the millions of gallons of water needed for cooling the reactors put too much stress on a region where freshwater is being threatened by sea rise.
But FPL says nuclear remains one of the cleanest forms of energy and plans on using recycled wastewater to cool the new reactors.
The park’s decision also makes sense, FPL spokesman Greg Brostowicz said in an email, “by relocating FPL’s right of way to the park’s eastern edge, adjacent to an area of existing development that includes roads, homes and commercial businesses.”
The final path of the corridor is also still in play. When the state approved the corridor, it required that FPL also try to find land outside the park. Rock miners in the area have signaled that they might be interested in selling land for the corridor.
“They didn’t come up with this idea they could build outside the park without having done some research,” said Cara Capp, Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. If the utility succeeds, the park deal ensures the land would be returned to the park.
There’s still a path forward that could leave the park 100 percent intact.
Cara Capp, Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association
“There’s still a path forward that could leave the park 100 percent intact,” Capp said. “We’re very cautious, too. It’s a scary thing to say FPL has to be a good corporate steward and it’s on their shoulders to make this happen.”
There are also other key pieces still in play. In October, after receiving more than 11,000 comments on the environmental impacts from the new reactors, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency said it would need to take a closer look and postponed signing off on the reactors.
Still, with the land in park hands, restoration work can move forward, Ramos said. A contract to complete a second 2.5-mile stretch of bridge on the Tamiami Trail, needed to allow more freshwater into the park, should be awarded in the next few months so work can begin in the Spring, Ramos said.
“We’re not giving up park land. This is an exchange,” he said. “They own land within the park and we’re basically moving their land out of our way.”