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Utilities press land access law

A state Senate bill would ease the path of lines through state lands and boost a nuclear plant.

By ASJYLYN LODER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2008


A wish list from the Florida electric industry became proposed state Senate legislation this week, marking progress for cherished changes that utilities have pursued for years.

If electric utilities get their way and the measure becomes law, it would speed up eminent domain and grant easier access to state lands for things like natural gas pipelines and transmission towers.

No one stands to benefit more than St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Florida, which plans to build 200 miles of transmission through 10 counties at a cost of about $2-billion. The utility helped draft the bill, and has lobbied state legislators on its behalf. The transmission will serve its planned Levy County nuclear power plant, slated to be built next door to the 42,000-acre Goethe State Forest.

The changes could save millions in coming years for the utility, owned by Progress Energy in Raleigh, N.C., and make it easier to finance a multibillion-dollar nuclear power project.

"One of the things that is most costly to our company and to our customers is delay," said Alex Glenn, deputy general counsel for Progress Energy Florida.

According to the utility, the legislation would still protect the environment while protecting the company from the cost of delay, which gets passed on to customers in the form of higher electric bills.

But environmentalists raise the spectre of massive clear-cut corridors, stretching hundreds of miles across pristine landscapes.

Glenn, who has given presentations to state legislators in favor of the changes, estimated that Progress Energy's transmission project could affect 5,000 to 10,000 land parcels in 10 counties. Some might be state lands, while others may need to be bought or taken by eminent domain.

"Some state lands are extremely valuable and have a high value to wildlife," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

Progress Energy was the largest of more than 30 utilities that worked on the legislation under the auspices of the Florida Electric Coordinating Group, an industry group, said Sarah Rogers, the group's president and CEO. The utilities unanimously agreed on the proposed changes. Progress Energy didn't have a lead role in drafting the legislation, Rogers added.

"We're not looking to throw the door wide open," she said. "We're just looking to crack it open a little."

Utilities don't want to slash their way through environmental preserves, she said. But the state controls lands, like highway rights-of-way, that aren't environmentally sensitive.

The group hired lobbyist Frank Matthews to help shape the legislation. It was introduced by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, this week. The legislation would put power line siting under the Florida Department of Environmental Protection instead of under the Cabinet, Bennett said. However, the Cabinet can decide to review cases because of the size or the sensitivity of the land involved. The utilities, in turn, could compensate the state by replacing each acre of state land with 1.5 acres of land that is of equal "economic and ecological or recreational value."

Bill's highlights
Legislation to ease expansion of transmission lines:
- Puts the onus on community groups or local governments to draft alternate routes.
- Sets a time line for eminent domain proceedings.
- Clarifies that transmission for nuclear projects and integrated gasification combined cycle coal plants is eligible for advanced cost recovery.
- Allows preliminary site work on nuclear projects before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection approves a site.
- Requires local officials to tell utilities whether planned facilities meet land-use rules, or lose the right to challenge after two years.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.