A Florida appeals court on Wednesday found Gov. Rick Scott and his Cabinet erred in approving two massive Florida Power & Light transmission lines cutting through some of Miami-Dade County’s most affluent cities and fragile wetlands.
In its ruling, the Third District Court of Appeal found Scott and the Cabinet — acting as the state siting board, which oversees power plants — failed to consider the city of Miami’s development rules when it signed off on allowing the utility to string 88 miles of line atop towers standing 80 to 150 feet high. Scott and his cabinet also failed to take into account the damage done to wildlife and Everglades marshes by buildings roads and concrete pads in a corridor that would cross fragile wetlands.
The board also erred, judges said, when it concluded it did not have the authority to order FPL to pay to bury the lines.
The siting board signed off on the two controversial lines and a backup plan in May 2014 as part of an approval for two proposed new nuclear reactors at Turkey Point. The decision immediately drew challenges from the county and cities of Miami, South Miami and Pinecrest, which argued the board ignored local rules.
Wednesday’s decision to send the order back, said Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez “is a huge victory for the City in our position against FPL on this issue.”
Under the plan, one 230 kilovolt line would stretch along U.S. 1 from Cutler Bay, through Pinecrest, South Miami and Coral Gables to a substation in Coconut Grove. A second 500 kilovolt line would run along the county’s western edge. The utility wanted to build the line across Everglades marshes, including inside the park. But the siting board asked FPL to also try to find land that didn’t crisscross wetlands.
The ruling effectively puts an end to a wetlands corridor. In reviewing the Everglades corridor, the judges said the siting board failed to consider Miami-Dade County’s environmental rules. And even if they had, the court found FPL “presented no competent, substantial evidence,” to justify over-riding them.
“The court agreed with the county that the record in this case did not show that FPL’s transmission line corridor could satisfy the rigorous environmental requirements,” said assistant county attorney Dennis Kerbel.
FPL spokesman Peter Robbins said in an email the utility believed the siting board made a “well-reasoned decision” and was disappointed with the ruling. Company officials were reviewing the opinion, he said, and would be evaluating legal options.
In reviewing the eastern corridor, judges determined that FPL cannot be exempted from local development rules or comprehensive plans drawn up by the cities.
While the decision puts the eastern corridor back in play, it’s still not clear what Scott and the cabinet will do. The politically powerful utility has spent $17 million in campaign contributions to influence politicians and the political process in the last six years. Of that, $3.9 million went to political committees for Associated Industries and Florida Chamber of Commerce, which then transferred FPL money to the political committees of Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Secrety Adam Putnam.
FPL has also given $805,000 directly to Scott's Let's Get to Work Political Committee and $50,000 to Bondi's Justice for All political committee.
The board could send the order back to an administrative law judge to correct the mistakes, or make their own decision.
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard is hoping the board opts for a rehearing and a decision to bury the lines.
“Putting transmission lines through an urban corridor produces an industrial look and feel that reduces land values,” he said. “If you look at the loss in property value, it’s considerable and that wasn’t taken into account by FPL, the [administrative law judge] or the siting board.”
The ruling comes as FPL faces increasing challenges to its operations at Turkey Point. In February, a Tallahassee administrative judge tossed out the state’s management plan of troubled cooling canals connected to the plant’s two existing Turkey Point reactors, saying state environmental officials failed to adequately address a saltwater plume emanating from the canals and threatening nearby drinking water supplies.
The worsening conditions drew increased scrutiny and calls for better management, including requests for oversight from federal environmental regulators from Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, and Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss.
In a letter to Rodriguez this week, Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Heather McTeer Toney said officials have met with the county, state and FPL to collect data. Spokeswoman Dawn Harris-Young also said Wednesday EPA officials have so far made one trip to the canals and are planning to return before the end of April.
Reporters Mary Ellen Klas and David Smiley contributed to this report.