Officials from several Miami-Dade communities impacted by an 88-mile transmission line sought by Florida Power & Light through the county’s most affluent and environmentally sensitive areas pleaded with a Senate committee Wednesday not to approve legislation to allow the company to build the line without considering local development rules.
The bill, SB 1048 by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, would overturn an April 2016 ruling by a three-judge panel of the Third District Court of Appeal that said the governor and Cabinet failed to consider Miami-Dade County’s environmental rules when they signed off on allowing FPL to string a transmission line through Everglades marshes and fragile wetlands.
Despite their appeals, the Senate Community Affairs Committee passed the bill with only one no vote — that of Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, whose district includes the entire corridor of the transmission line along U.S. 1 from Cutler Bay, through Pinecrest, South Miami and Coral Gables to a substation in Coconut Grove.
“For constituents and local elected leaders who have been very involved in trying to make sure our community is protected from environmental impacts, economic impacts, public safety concerns, this bill confirms our worst fears about how laws are made in Tallahassee,” Rodriguez said. “The sense is that the bigger the checkbook, the easier it is to get laws written.”
In May 2014, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, acting as the Power Plant Siting Board, signed off on the two lines and a backup plan as part of an approval for two new nuclear reactors at Turkey Point. The decision immediately drew challenges from the county and cities of Miami, South Miami and Pinecrest.
The bill changes the state’s Power Plant Siting Act and Transmission Line Siting Act by exempting utilities from development regulations, and it also gives the Public Service Commission the sole authority to order utilities to put power lines under ground.
Lee argued that the bill is “simply returning, modifying the law to correct a glitch” found by the court and absent changes to the law, the court’s ruling would make it impossible for utilities to site transmission lines in the future. He argued that for 40 years Florida law has allowed utilities to make infrastructure improvements inside established rights-of-way and be entitled to a development exception that exempts them from complying with land-use regulations.
But lawyers and council members from Pinecrest, Miami, South Miami, Coral Gables and Miami-Dade County told the committee that it is misreading the court ruling and that the bill allows FPL, and other utilities in the future, to ignore environmental concerns and local safety regulations and it will diminish private property rights.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me that, in a state like Florida — where we’re so concerned about local government over-regulation — we’re not equally concerned about utilities doing that,” said Craig Leen, city attorney for Coral Gables. “If you put a big power pole next to someone’s house, that hurts someone’s property rights.”
James McDonald, Pinecrest council member, urged the committee to slow the fast-track approval of the bill and work out a resolution that addresses the concerns of local communities.
“We all know FPL is what FPL is in this state, and they have a lot of power,” he said. “They never came to the plaintiffs in this case and said, ‘What can we do to work this out?’ It’s just being bulldozed through the legislative process.”
Kerri McNulty, assistant city attorney for Miami, urged the committee to “pause and think about what you meant to say.” She said the bill will allow 80- to 105-foot transmission towers to “go through people’s backyards” and the city’s business district.
“It is reasonable that power companies don’t want to comply with every zoning code — we understand that,” she said. “But there are certain codes in place for public safety. ... Maybe the municipality should be at the table.”
FPL has made overturning this and another court ruling, which rejected the company’s attempt to charge customers for fracking investments in other states, two of its top legislative priorities.
The company was one of the largest contributors to statewide political committees in the 2016 election cycle. In 2017 so far, it has given $1.5 million to legislative political committees.
The bill now goes to the Senate floor, and a companion bill, HB 1055, which has quickly been approved by two House committees, has one more committee stop.