BIG CYPRESS — Hendry County’s push to amend its comprehensive land plan, so Florida Power & Light can build one of the largest electrical power plants in the nation next door to the Big Cypress Reservation, is taking due course but not in the direction environmentalists and Tribal members hoped.
According to the state land planning agency’s review process, certain government agencies are required to provide comments on issues, such as transportation, before the land change proposals can be made law.
In the case of the three Hendry County land plan proposed amendments, all comments were sent to the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) by Sept. 1.
The agencies, including the Department of Education, Department of Transportation, Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, South Florida Water Management District, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and others, provided no roadblocks to adopting the new amendments.
A final public hearing date – followed by the BCC vote – will occur no later than March 2016. According to the state-mandated timeline, the county board has 180 days from receipt of comments to finally vote the amendments in or out.
Some Seminole Tribe members are already shaking their heads in disbelief.
“Approval of the amendments by the county is going to happen and we will have to keep fighting it,” said Big Cypress Board Rep. Joe Frank. “Business monopolies like FPL have done environmental, social and economic injustice to the citizens of Florida for years, and now with this proposed plant by the border of the reservation, the health and welfare of the residents of Big Cypress is threatened for generations. The county and state will not listen to our concerns so we will have to be heard in court.”
The amendments, written by FPL and accepted by Hendry County, will respectively create a new electrical generating facility land use category; set criteria for FPL specifically to build the utility’s massive power plant on land that abutts the Seminole reservation; and amend the county’s map to change the current designation of the land use from agriculture to electrical generating facility.
The agencies were directed by the land planning agency, also known as the Department of Economic Opportunity, to address only the specific agency’s concerns.
For instance, the Department of Transportation wrote that all three proposed amendments “are not anticipated to adversely impact important state transportation resources or facilities.” A chart was provided to predict no negative traffic impacts on nearby roadways during the building of the plant or when the finished plant employs operational staff.
The Department of Education responded with “no comment” because “the proposed amendments do not appear to have the potential to adversely affect public educational facilities.” It is unknown if the department knows that tribal land 1 mile south of the FPL property is designated for the future Ahfachkee High School.
The Tribe’s legal team, Lewis, Longman & Walker, commented in a letter to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).
In the Aug. 21 letter, attorney Stephen Walker implored the agency to address the Tribe’s water resources and wetlands, which directly affect the Tribe’s culture, quality of life and land use compatibility.
Noting that the Tribe has federal water rights via a compact with the Tribe, state and SFWMD, the letter stated that the plant, on 3,100 FPL acres, will require up to approximately 22 million gallons of water per day, which will exceed standards set by SFWMD to prevent impact to onsite and adjacent wetlands. Further, the plant’s water needs will interfere with needs of the Big Cypress Reservation. The Tribe uses 89 million gallons per day for its entire 55,000-acre community; 95 percent of the water is used for agricultural purposes, according to the letter.
“FPL has declined to address its potential impacts on water supply based on an assumption that these issues can be addressed at a later date through a future permitting process. Unfortunately, that will be too late,” Walker wrote.
However, SFWMD’s comment to the county, also dated Aug. 21, stated: “There appear to be no regionally significant water resource issues associated with the text and map amendments; therefore, the district forwards no comments on the proposed amendment package.” In the next sentence, however, the SFWMD notes that the amendments will involve Seminole land and that future activities on the land will be evaluated by the agency in respect to the water compact.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection also reported no concerns with the land use changes but stated in the comment letter that it conducted a detailed review on potential impacts to air and water pollution, wetlands and other surface water, lands – whether state or federally owned – and a handful of other issues.
While the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) offered “no objections to the amendment,” it offered technical assistance to the county, particularly when FPL prepares later to apply to the governor and Cabinet and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for certification and license for the plant per the Power Plant Siting Act process.
The FWC noted FPL’s proposals to provide habitat for more than 30 wildlife species, which include several on threatened and endangered lists such as the bald eagle, Florida panther and Everglades snail kite. The FWC maintained confidence that impacts to fish and wildlife would be addressed during the Power Plant Siting Act process and other regulatory requirements.
Only the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council addressed tangible tribal concerns, specifically negative “impacts on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation,” though the group agreed that the amendment proposals are consistent with other local government comprehensive plans. The council also suggested that protection of the Florida panther should be addressed in detail with the FWC: “Although promises have been made to add infrastructure to the area, none are currently ready.”
Promises and proposals are huge problems, according to Tribal members like environmental artist Sam Tommie. He fears that if the three amendments become law, FPL will build the plant around legal technicalities with little concern for the land, water, animals or the living culture of its neighbors.
“We have to be very careful what they say and what they write as law,” Tommie said. “A person has to look behind all that at once and think of every word by itself.”