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Tiny change leads to lawsuit

Did Lykes, FPL and Glades County come together to alter rules to allow an Everglades power plant?

By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
Published March 15, 2007


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Tampa-based Lykes Brothers and Florida's largest utility cut a deal with Glades County officials to illegally rezone 400,000 acres of Lykes land to allow the utility to build a power plant at the edge of the Everglades, an environmental group charged in a lawsuit filed late Tuesday.

The Lykes land, which covers 90 percent of Glades County, had been zoned for agriculture. The rezoning, quietly approved by Glades officials last year, inserted the letter "P" into line number 1,745 of a 2,100-line table in its land-use ordinance, the suit contends.

That small alteration changed the uses permitted in agricultural areas to include power plants.

"They just slipped it by everybody," said David Guest of Earthjustice, which filed the suit on behalf of five Glades County landowners.

Glades officials weren't trying to fool anyone, said Assistant County Administrator Larry Hilton. The change was supposed to help Lykes develop a 3,500-home community called Muse Village in another part of the county, he said, not hide Florida Power & Light's plans for a new coal-fired plant near Lake Okeechobee.

Lykes vice president Mark Morton said his company asked for the change, but agreed with Hilton that this wasn't about FPL's new plant.

"We told the county that they needed to add language to allow utilities on agricultural land" to provide power for Muse Village, he said. "After that, the power company thing came up."

An FPL spokeswoman declined to comment.

To keep pace with rising electricity demands, FPL has been trying for years to build a power plant somewhere in South Florida. Originally, the utility intended to build it in St. Lucie County, a plan that stirred tremendous controversy.

In November 2005, St. Lucie commissioners said no because of pollution concerns and possible violations of the county's growth plan.

So, in February 2006, FPL officials began talking to Glades County officials about building a 1,960-megawatt plant there. Last September, the utility announced it would build the plant on about 5,000 acres of Lykes-owned farmland 5 miles northwest of Moore Haven.

That puts it within 70 miles of Everglades National Park and 40 miles north of Big Cypress National Preserve. Utility officials say the $5.7-billion plant will employ a technology called advanced supercritical pulverization, burning coal at extremely high temperatures and using extensive filters to make it far cleaner than a regular coal-fired plant.

But last week the Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups filed papers with the Public Service Commission to oppose the plant, citing concerns about the impact of pollution on the already imperiled Everglades.

Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimball has also expressed concern about the plant's smokestacks pumping mercury into the air and water. Mercury contamination is already such a big problem at the park that visitors are warned not to eat fish caught there.

The news that Glades commissioners had approved a land-use change that would clear the way for building a coal-fired power plant in their backyard caught local residents off-guard, said Lynn Kilcoyne, who has lived there 20 years.

"I'm amazed at how sneaky they've been in all this," said Kilcoyne, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Records obtained by Earthjustice show that Hilton and County Manager Wendell Taylor met on March 29, 2006, with four FPL executives as well as Morton and another executive from Lykes and Glades County Commission Chairman Butch Jones.

No records show what they discussed. But at that point the zoning code said land zoned for agriculture would not be suitable for commercial and industrial development.

On April 6, 2006, county officials sent out a public notice about a proposed land-use change that made no mention of power plants. After two public hearings at which no one mentioned power plants, the commission in May adopted the change by a unanimous vote.

After the vote, George Whidden of Florida Power & Light sent an e-mail to Glades officials thanking them for the "very substantial progress you have made on our endeavor" and stating "it is indeed a pleasure working with such straightforward folks."

The suit seeks to stop Glades from being able to use the new zoning for the FPL plant. So far, no hearing dates have been scheduled.

Times staff research Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com or at 727-893-8530.

Fast Facts:

What is Lykes Brothers?

Lykes Brothers is the state's oldest business dynasty, formed in 1900 by the seven sons of Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes. Their company dominated the cattle, citrus, fertilizer, sugar and timber industries, owned banks, the Lykes brand meat-packing business, natural gas and steel companies as well as the world's largest steamship line. But since the last surviving brother died in 1967, the company has sold off many divisions and lost some of its prominence. It still controls swaths of Florida real estate, and is helping to push for a new road, the Heartland Parkway, that could boost its property's value.

[Last modified March 14, 2007, 22:49:42]


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