BIG CYPRESS — A nearly 70-mile trek, on foot, from Big Cypress Reservation to the Hendry County Courthouse to oppose plans that could bring a massive power plant right next door, has been postponed.
The demonstration, set to start April 18 and end April 21 on the morning of a scheduled court hearing that pits the Seminole Tribe of Florida against defendants who support the plant, could be rescheduled to accommodate a new court date.
The lawsuit against Florida Power & Light (FPL), McDaniel Reserve Realty Holdings (owned by developer Edward Garcia) and Hendry County, stems from the Tribe’s allegation that zoning for the property was changed improperly by the county from agricultural to mixed use after it was purchased by Garcia from the McDaniel family, who had lived and raised cattle on the land for decades.
Garcia was to build a community complete with homes, shops, parks and industry – a Planned Unit Development (PUD) that requires compatible land uses.
Instead, Garcia sold the 2,300-acre property to FPL which then proposed in its 10-year plan to build a massive, gas powered power plant. The plant would be a twin to the utility company’s West County Energy Center in Palm Beach County – one of the largest in the nation and the biggest producers of greenhouse gasses in Florida.
Stephen Walker, an environmental and land use attorney for the Tribe’s legal team on the case, said the Tribe is challenging that the zoning change was inconsistent with the county’s own land use guidelines.
“One of the questions the Tribe has is whether there is compatibility with land use … Under Florida law a county or city cannot adopt a rezoning that is not consistent or compatible. They can amend it, but they can’t ignore it,” Walker said.
Tribal members say the plant’s constantly burning generator fires will destroy the night sky; its three 15-story combustion towers will spew steaming clouds over the landscape; and its cooling pools will suck millions of gallons of water daily from the Florida aquifer – eventually destroying the Tribe’s long-established cultural, historical and economic balance with nature.
Seminole descendants of Native Americans who called the land home long before cattle owners and developers, say the property that abutts the reservation line should be kept rural. They contend that the existence of several archeological sites, medicinal plants and wildlife species including endangered birds, reptiles and Florida panthers near or on the land, would be jeopardized.
A preliminary hearing is set for 2 p.m. April 2 at the courthouse, 25 E. Hickpoochee Ave. in LaBelle. There, the Tribe and the defendants will put the facts of the case, including discovery documentation concerning the land’s hydrology, archeology and environment issues, before the judge. However, Walker said, because the defendants did not produce reports in time to question subject experts during pre-trial depositions, the Tribe will ask for sanctions – one being to postpone the trial. The decision could take days, but likely not weeks.
“The reports were provided to opposing (lawyers) but not to us. They showed it to us at the deposition, but it was too little too late,” Walker said.
Tribal members and other interested people can attend April 2, but no testimony or arguments will be made.
Walker said the time for the public to be heard is now while compatibility with cultural, historical, environmental and other surrounding issues are being argued. The public may also attend on the decided date of the trial.
“Because the Tribe is unique, the distinction between Big Cypress and a subdivision in Weston is much, much more than a physical location. A reservation has a different kind of meaning than a typical residential community,” Walker said.