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Protesters tilt at turbine plan

FPL wants to plant a wind farm with three towering turbines in a St. Lucie park and conservation area.

By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008


Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, wants to build a line of nine wind turbines, each more than 400 feet tall, along an Atlantic Ocean beach.

It's the first such wind farm ever proposed for the Sunshine State, but there's a catch: Three of the turbines would be built on publicly owned land bought for conservation purposes. The other six would be built on FPL property near its Hutchinson Island nuclear plant.

"It's really precedent setting for the entire state of Florida" if FPL gets permission to use conservation land, said St. Lucie County Commissioner Doug Coward. "We're kind of the testing ground."

FPL wants to build on Blind Creek Park, public land just south of the nuclear plant. The county park provides nesting areas for sea turtles, forage for wood storks and a bonanza for archaeologists, because it holds a burial ground of prehistoric Indians.

The turbines would take up only 3 or 4 acres of dunes in the 409-acre park, FPL officials say, but to opponents like Coward that's too much.

"It doesn't make any sense to me to promote green energy at the expense of our green spaces," said Coward. "I don't know that you could pick a worse site."

Other commissioners are less certain about what to do, and want more information.

"None of us are wind experts," said Commissioner Charles Grande, "although some of us are known for producing hot air."

FPL needs a green light from county officials for a change in zoning and a variance on a 35-foot height limit for buildings, as well as from the state, which owns the land.

The controversy reached a fever pitch last week when 200 people showed up for a St. Lucie County Commission meeting dressed in red and yellow - "the colors of caution," said Ericka D'Avanzo of the Surfrider Foundation, a coalition of surfers, divers and anglers that helped organize the anti-FPL demonstration. Surfrider volunteers have spent hours restoring native vegetation at Blind Creek, and are not happy about the utility's proposal.

The utility's plans were supposed to be on the agenda for a state lands committee vote Friday, but some St. Lucie commissioners were worried they were being rushed to a decision and demanded FPL pull the project from the state's agenda. Now the state vote has been pushed back to at least April.

In a report to the state lands committee, the state Department of Environmental Protection said the utility's proposal appeared to be "in the public interest."

"The location fulfills all siting criteria for wind energy generation on the Florida coast, avoids coastal wetland impacts, and contributes to the state of Florida's goal ... of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," the report said. No other places along the coast were suitable, it said.

But a coalition of environmental groups - including Audubon of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and 1,000 Friends of Florida - have sent state officials a letter questioning whether the windmills will kill migrating birds and objecting to using conservation land for an industrial use.

"While there are obvious benefits to considering the feasibility of wind in Florida," they wrote, "the benefits of the project do not warrant the significant wildlife impacts and bad conservation lands precedent that could result from this easement request."

FPL officials, when contacted for comment, said only one person at the company was qualified to talk to a reporter about the windmills of Hutchinson Island, and that person was too busy.

One of the biggest hurdles FPL faces is a memo from the county attorney that says turning the property over to the utility would be illegal. The reason: The land was purchased in part by using $3.6-million in bonds approved by St. Lucie's voters to buy and protect "environmentally significant lands and wildlife habitat." The ballot language included no provision for turning the land over to a utility.

This is not the first time FPL has clashed with St. Lucie County officials. Two years ago the company sought permission to build a coal-fired power plant there. When county officials asked why FPL couldn't build a wind farm or a solar array instead, the utility said neither was practical, Grande said.

St. Lucie rejected the coal plant, citing concerns that emissions would contribute to global warming. FPL tried to build it near the Everglades instead, a move opposed by Gov. Charlie Crist and rejected by the state Public Service Commission.

In the summer, Crist signed a series of executive orders designed to push both government and industry to combat global warming. One called for the state's utilities to get 20 percent of their power from alternate energy sources like solar and wind, which has led to FPL's proposal.

Grande said he thinks the arguments over FPL's wind farm are likely to last for months. If only FPL could capture all the heat generated by the controversy, he joked, "we could probably shut down the nuclear plant."

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