Miami-Dade County

15-story FPL power lines would be a jolt to the Underline, neighborhoods, businesses

The specter of gargantuan power lines turning the suburban U.S. 1 corridor into a dystopian landscape is back. Just in time to interfere with the Underline plan to green that territory into a linear park and developers’ plans to convert the spine along Metrorail into transit-connected housing.

Florida Power & Light is not giving up on its determination to string about 27 miles of line atop towers standing 9 to 15 stories tall despite a 2016 Florida appeals court decision that rejected the proposal, ruling that Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet erred in approving construction and ignored local zoning rules.

FPL went back to the Cabinet — acting as the state Power Plant Siting Board — on Nov. 30 and has again received the go-ahead to erect a 230-kilovolt line along U.S. 1 from Cutler Bay to Coconut Grove. FPL said it needs to increase the capacity of its existing network to provide reliable future service.

The city of South Miami, which straddles U.S. 1, will fight FPL, as it and other cities have for a decade, and hopes to win again, Mayor Philip Stoddard said.

“The siting board rubber-stamped FPL’s wish list like it did previously, so that’s no surprise,” said Stoddard, vowing to appeal. “Making our cities look like an industrial zone hurts property values. People don’t like giant electrical poles. It’s not just a question of aesthetics. It’s a question of money.”

South Miami plans to fight FPL’s request to erect powerlines that could be even taller than the ones pictured here in Coral Gables

Stoddard said the city could lose 12 percent of its tax base, according to a study by the University of Miami economics department and estimates from real estate agents. Pinecrest Cadillac dealer Ed Williamson read a study that showed a 30 percent drop in property value for businesses near high-voltage lines.

“Medical studies show that these transmission lines lead to higher rates of childhood leukemia,” Stoddard said, noting health risks to the public associated with electromagnetic radiation. “I would not raise children near them.”

But FPL cites other evidence from the World Health Organization and the National Cancer Institute, which “concluded that exposure to electric and magnetic fields coming from transmission lines does not cause or contribute to any type of cancer or any other disease or illness,” said Richard Beltran, FPL spokesperson. He said Florida is one of two states that has set safety limits and guidelines and that “FPL’s facilities comply with these standards.”

FPL and the siting board failed to consider significant new development along the corridor, such as the Underline, already under construction downtown, with funding sources that include Miami-Dade County and the state. The 10-mile recreational trail beneath the Metrorail tracks will stretch south to Dadeland.

Key to the Underline is enough width to allow for a 10-foot-wide cycling lane and 8-foot-wide pedestrian lane, public art installations, gathering spots, playgrounds, plus a native tree canopy and lush vegetation, “which to me is the magic of the vision,” said Meg Daly, founder of the Underline project. Designers already have to work around 400 Metrorail columns. FPL pillars and planting restrictions beneath wires could be impediments.

Rendering of the Underline under Metrorail near U.S. 1.

The Underline is Miami’s 10-mile Central Park, an amenity and opportunity for the community, and if everyone using that land doesn’t bring that spirit to the table, we’ll have a lot to talk about,” Daly said. “It’s been a long slog on those power lines but people are saying, wait, we have this new project that can change the way we live, work and play, and space for it should be a priority.”

Reuse projects such as New York’s High Line and Atlanta’s Beltline “prove that industrial land doesn’t have to be just infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. It can be green,” she said.

Gables Station, a mixed-use “oasis of residences, public space and commercial space” with two acres along the Underline, is going up at U.S. 1 and LeJeune Road/Grand Avenue; none of the lovely renderings on its website picture electrical towers. Another development will rise at the Dadeland North Metrorail station, as well as at the Douglas Road and Coconut Grove stations. South Miami anticipates redevelopment of its city hall site at U.S. 1 and Sunset Drive and the Shops at Sunset Place, which will add hotel and residential units “that would be staring straight at huge power lines,” Stoddard said.

While FPL weighs when it might build two new nuclear reactors at its Turkey Point plant, it argues it needs the new high-voltage lines to meet regulatory guidelines and save customers billions of dollars on future fossil fuel costs. The utility withdrew its request for a 500-kilovolt transmission corridor in the western part of Miami-Dade County, through the East Everglades, after the Third District Court of Appeal ruled in 2016 that Scott and his Cabinet failed to take into account damage the lines would cause to wildlife and wetlands.

Former Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, who battled FPL for years and called the lines “monstrosities,” questioned why the transmission corridor was linked to nuclear expansion at Turkey Point that she believes isn’t needed and may never be built. The Sierra Club remains skeptical of FPL’s request, and says it is past time for FPL to bury its lines, especially given the danger during hurricane season.

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FPL transmission lines abut the U.S. 1 corridor and the Metrorail bike path. Linda Robertson

“We believe that FPL is pursuing a bait-and-switch, seeking to get transmission lines approved for a nuclear plant that cannot be built for economic reasons, but which will ultimately serve as a gas-burning plant,” the Sierra Club wrote in opposition to FPL’s application.

“Opportunities for new green space in eastern Miami-Dade County, which also will support economic vitality in local communities, are a rarity and should not be squandered to save money on high-voltage transmission lines for a problematic nuke project. When high-voltage lines must be placed in urban areas, the public interest is best served by placing them underground, at the utility’s expense, to minimize harm to the natural and human environment.”

FPL disputes the Sierra Club’s assertions and “has no plans to build a gas-burning plant at Turkey Point,” Beltran said.

The city of Coral Gables, which has had a contentious relationship with FPL, decided to settle its dispute with the siting board and wound up with enormous 85-foot-tall lines and 3 1/2-foot-diameter concrete columns along Ponce de Leon Boulevard that run parallel to affluent neighborhoods and the University of Miami campus.

“The City Beautiful chickened out and got butt-ugly electrical lines,” Stoddard said.

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Transmission poles line Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. Linda Robertson

South Miami, Pinecrest, Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami appealed and won, and the court also ruled that Scott and his Cabinet were wrong to conclude they had no authority to order FPL to pay to install underground lines. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the decision in 2017.

Stoddard would like to see cities reach a compromise with FPL in which the utility would foot most of the bill for burying lines.

FPL says municipalities that choose to bury lines should pay for it themselves so the expense is not shared by customers statewide.

The city of Miami negotiated a cost-sharing settlement with FPL in 2017 with the goal of burying power lines along a 5-mile stretch from downtown to Coconut Grove. Other city leaders and environmentalists urged Miami not to settle and to push the state to force FPL to pay the cost -- which the utility had previously quoted at around $18 million per mile -- of moving lines underground.

“We are willing to work with cities and municipalities to underground certain power lines, but it is unfair to ask all FPL customers to cover the cost of undergrounding power lines for one community,” Beltran said.