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FPL’s plan to place transmission lines along U.S. 1 and the Everglades jolts several communities

Cadillac dealer Ed Williamson calls the prospect of 100-foot-tall, high-voltage transmission lines strung in front of his gleaming showroom along U.S. 1 in Pinecrest a potential business killer. Cindy Lerner, the city’s mayor, is so steamed over the proposal that she refuses to even call them “transmission lines’’ in public.

“I call them monstrosities,’’ she said.

Florida Power & Light’s plan to run two new major power line corridors through Miami-Dade County will be the subject of public hearings this week as part of a state certification process. One set of lines would run through some of the most affluent communities on the county’s eastern side; the other, much larger trio of lines would run along the border of Everglades National Park.

It’s safe to say both routes, which FPL defends as vital to supplying energy to South Florida’s growing population, will face contentious opposition.

Pinecrest, South Miami and Coral Gables, backed by some area businesses, have campaigned for three years against the utility’s plan to run a 230-kilovolt line that would run up U.S. 1 from the edge of Cutler Bay to Coconut Grove, urging FPL to put it underground or use an existing corridor farther west. Earlier this month, Coral Gables filed a suit contending the proposal violated long-standing agreements, and Miami also waded in with legal objections.

The western corridor, which would string two rows of 500-kilovolt lines on 150-foot-tall concrete and steel towers and a third 230-kilovolt line along a seven-mile stretch of Everglades National Park, has raised concerns with park managers and environmentalists, who say it would harm wildlife, destroy wetlands, blight the landscape and disrupt restoration projects. Miami-Dade County questions whether both corridors run afoul of county codes.

Lerner, who has battled FPL for several years over the proposals, said the utility is trying to ram through two damaging corridors to support a nuclear expansion at Turkey Point she believes isn’t needed and suspects may never get built.

“They’re destroying two areas in one fell swoop when they don’t have to build the facilities at all,” Lerner said.

FPL insists it thoroughly studied the options and selected routes to reduce impacts and expenses as part of a nuclear expansion plant at Turkey Point the company argues will boost the reliability of its service and, over time, save customers billions of dollars in electrical costs. The new corridors are intended to deliver power from two additional nuclear reactors FPL wants to add at the plant on South Biscayne Bay.

“This project is projected to save our customers $75 billion in fossil fuel costs over the life of the project and the initial life is 40 years — that’s an enormous number,” said FPL spokesman Peter Robbins. “Nuclear energy is free of emissions, no greenhouse gases are produced. We encourage people to learn more about it.”

FPL’s plans, initially filed in 2009, have already gone through lengthy state and federal reviews.

A final decision rests with Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet, who compose the state’s little-known Power Plant Siting Board.

The hearings this week — scheduled in Homestead, Coral Gables and Miami — are intended to gather public input as part of a certification process overseen by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They’re being held by Florida Administrative Law Judge D.R. Alexander, who will write a recommendation to the siting board. His recommendation is expected by October and a decision from Tallahassee by December — but the timeline has been pushed back numerous times so far.

If approved by December, FPL project manager Steve Scroggs said construction on the transmission lines could begin by 2015. If FPL gets state and federal approval for two new reactors, the earliest date for getting them on-line would be 2022 and 2023 if the utility decides to move forward on projects estimated to cost $18 billion or more.

Over the last few weeks, Coral Gables and Miami fired the latest legal missives in this four-year battle.

The city of Miami formally filed a legal memo this week arguing FPL was trying to use the state’s complicated transmission line siting process to usurp local zoning authority. The brief, filed by city attorney Julie Bru and deputy city attorney Victoria Mendez, also argued a “determination of need’’ that cleared the way for FPL’s nuclear expansion plan, issued by the Public Service Commission in 2008 during a statewide housing boom, was outdated and should be reassessed.

“It is clear that the numbers reported in 2008, nearly five years ago, are not relevant at this time,’’ the memo reads. “There has been no shortage of power or notable peak performance issues by FPL.’’

Coral Gables’ suit contends the utility violated its 30-year franchise agreement with the city by proposing to build poles up to 100 feet in height and four feet wide along part of Ponce de Leon Boulevard that runs parallel to U.S. 1, in front of the University of Miami.

Since 1951, when the Gables and FPL first entered into their agreement, FPL’s “customary practice’’ was to build poles ranging from 54 to 80 feet high with an average width of less than three feet, the suit says. The current agreement, which allows FPL to operate within the city’s right-of-way, runs through 2028 and the city contends the governor and Cabinet have no jurisdiction over it.

“We believe that FPL should improve their existing corridor instead of trying to create a new corridor of poles that are double in size and that are going to completely scar our community,” said Liz Hernandez, a former attorney for the city who is providing legal counsel to Coral Gables. Kendall residents, however, aren’t happy about the possibility of more lines in the existing corridor.

Miami-Dade County also has raised numerous questions about both of FPL’s proposals.

In 2011, county agencies issued a report recommending the state reject sections of a western pathway critics argue would harm wildlife, destroy wetlands, disrupt Everglades restoration projects and leave an ugly scar on the park. In its report, Miami-Dade County recommends rejecting sections of the proposed pathway within the park, flatly stating that there are “less impacting alternative alignments’’ that could “entirely avoid’’ the Everglades and adjacent sensitive wetlands.

The county report also recommended denial of FPL’s eastern route that has riled residents from Cutler Bay to Coconut Grove — unless the utility would agree to bury the line at its own expense. The towering lines, the report said, would conflict with existing land-use codes, impede development and amount to a visual blight.

FPL’s Robbins said the company could not comment on pending litigation.

But, he added, “Importantly, the proposed route follows a long-established, existing right-of-way through the city and was chosen after receiving input from our customers, agencies, and local governments in order to minimize the impact on the community. The proposed poles are similar to those that have been installed in numerous communities around the state.”

Project manager Scroggs said that FPL has reached out for feedback since the proposal was first filed.

“We mailed out a half-million notices and letters to people who have property on rights-of-way we’ve been investigating,” Scroggs said. “We had nine open-houses through Miami-Dade County and opportunities for the public to talk to engineers, view maps, give their concerns about certain areas. We had an electronic survey and 64,000 customers responded. We used all of that input. These local governments that are opposing are doing so after we sat down with them.”

Still, community leaders contend FPL hasn’t provided straight answers and has rebuffed proposed route changes.

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard, whose stance against the transmission lines and FPL’s Turkey Point expansion defined his election campaign, argues the utility has never made a compelling argument for why it needs a new corridor when it also owns one just to the west.

“The only thing I have gotten them to say is, ‘What if somebody crashed an airplane into the existing corridor, we’d have some redundancy,’” said Stoddard, a biology professor at Florida International University.

Stoddard wants FPL to move the transmission line to its existing corridor but he’d like to see it done as part of an overhaul that would make the project more palatable for surrounding residents.

“What I would love to seem them do is put the whole thing underground and turn it into a lineal park,’’ he said. “They can name it after [FPL president] Eric Silagy for all I care but it would go from a liability to an amenity.”

Stoddard, echoing many critics, also believes FPL has no intention of building the two new nuclear units at Turkey Point, which the utility has estimated could cost $12 to $18 billion, or more.

Instead, he suspects natural gas plants, which are cheaper to construct, will eventually go up, but in the meantime, FPL can use a state nuclear cost recovery law, which allows it to charge ratepayers upfront for some expenses, to pay for new transmission lines instead of upgrading aging corridors.

The utility has repeatedly insisted it has not misused the recovery law, saying it spent some $3 billion to overhaul and increase the output from the existing units at Turkey Point and its other nuclear plant in St. Lucie County. And it has long argued that putting the lines underground would be far too expensive, raising costs by five to eight times.

FPL also argues that it would be unfair and run afoul of state regulators to ask ratepayers statewide to foot an expensive project to help a few communities.

“If there’s a choice to go underground and it’s made by a local municipality for aesthetic reasons, then that’s a localized benefit and the Public Service Commission doesn’t see why a consumer in Belle Glade or Sarasota should be paying for a localized benefit in a certain geographic area,” Scroggs said.

But Williamson, the Cadillac dealer, argues that running the transmission lines up U.S. 1 will prove costly for hundreds of businesses. He said he’s seen one study showing a 30 percent drop in property values for businesses near major transmission lines.

“There is nothing good looking about these poles,’’ Williamson said. “We’re in the retail business and we rely on being an attractive place to potential customers.’’

With the western corridor there is potentially more hope for a compromise.

Last year, state environmental regulators, with no objections from FPL, agreed to consider a new route proposed by an unlikely alliance of an environmental group and the rock-mining industry. It would remove the 500-kilovolt towers from the park boundary and run them through the county’s rock-mining belt and sparsely populated western lands largely owned by the state and county.

That route could also be more expensive for FPL but Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, said state regulators should put the interest of residents ahead of a utility.

“Everybody needs to recognize the impact this private utility can have on the growth of our economy,’’ she said. “We depend on tourism in the Everglades and we depend on that U.S. 1 corridor for our local economy.’’

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this story. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.