HUTCHINSON ISLAND – The battle over bringing wind turbines to St. Lucie County heats up this week as the state and county both take up the issue.
The Acquisition and Restoration Council, a state agency that oversees the use of public conservation lands and makes recommendations on new lands for purchase, will discuss Florida Power & Light Co.’s turbine project Thursday and make its decision Friday. FPL wants to put nine wind machines on the island, six on its own property and three on state-owned land that is leased by the county.
The county learned of the state meeting Friday and added the turbine discussion to Tuesday’s morning commission meeting agenda. The county apologized to residents for the late notice, but felt it was important to have the discussion prior to the Tallahassee hearings, said Erick Gill, a county spokesman.
An FPL spokeswoman said they learned they were on the state agenda Thursday and notified the county immediately.
“It’s unfortunate we’re forced to react on such late notice, but we have to move forward,” said Commissioner Doug Coward, who has opposed putting the turbines on public conservation land.
The issue before the state council is whether to approve a roughly 6-acre easement to allow the turbines on state land. If the council likes the project, it would go to Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet for approval, but not until St. Lucie County signs off on it, said Sarah Williams, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman.
FPL has received initial positive feedback from the Division of State Lands, which recommended approving the project. Its analysis found the project wouldn’t negatively impact coastal mangrove wetlands and it also states the Fish and Wildlife Commission, which hasn’t issued any final conclusions, believes the turbines wouldn’t pose a negative impact to birds based on studies conducted by FPL.
The state land is of particular importance to FPL as the number of sites available for turbines is limited. The company has told the state there is no private land along the Florida coast within FPL territory suitable for the project.
FPL also has studied and ruled out putting them on land near the John F. Kennedy Space Center and near Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, both in Brevard County, due to concerns over a negative impact on birds, radio interference and disruption of flight paths.
If turbines are allowed, the company would be required to submit an annual study on the impact of the turbines on sea turtles and birds and correct problems, if they occur. It also would have to give the state at least 12 acres of land to make up for the land taken by the turbines and pay for use of the easement.
Someone anonymously sent County Attorney Dan McIntyre internal FPL documents Thursday that showed employees raising questions about the turbines threatening safety at the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant following a July employee meeting. The company said an engineering firm determined there was no danger to the plant, even at wind speeds of up to 360 mph.
The employees who raised the concerns have not been disciplined or fired as a result, FPL spokeswoman Amy Brunjes said. She said the computer messaging system where the question was raised is open to all employees at the plant and any of them would have had access to the documents.
McIntyre said Friday a handwritten note was included with the papers saying the person had concerns about several bird species. The leaked documents were not related to a public records request regarding the wind turbines that also was received Thursday, he said.
Meanwhile, FPL met last week with the county growth management department that has submitted a lengthy set of questions to the company about the project. Staff aren’t making a recommendation on whether the turbines are good or not, but simply whether the project follows county regulations, said Robin Meyer, assistant growth management director.
FPL requires the county’s approval for a zoning and conditional use change to the land and for a waiver on height restrictions on the island, issues that eventually will go to the Planning and Zoning Board and the County Commission.
McIntyre wrote a memo recently recommending commissioners not allow the turbines on the state land because it was partially bought with county conservation money. FPL officials have said they consider it an advisory opinion and don’t believe it shuts the door on the project moving forward.
Opponents of the project are seeing if any of the state or national groups that have sent letters weighing in on the issue might be attending the Tallahassee meeting. Adam Locke, a member of the Save St. Lucie Alliance that opposes the turbines, said they were surprised by the suddenness of the meetings.
“This really needs the attention of the people in the area that matters,” Locke said. “We’re just trying to raise awareness and educate the public.”
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THE WIND TURBINES?
* County staff met Feb. 7 with representatives from Florida Power & Light Co. about their proposal to put nine wind turbines on Hutchinson Island. The Growth Management Department hasn’t made any recommendations on the project, but once staff has finished reviewing materials from FPL, the issue will go to the Planning and Zoning Board, and eventually to the County Commission.
* The Acquisition and Restoration Council meets Thursday and Friday and will consider granting FPL an easement to place turbines on state land. If the council approves the plan, it must go to the County Commission for approval before going to Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet for final approval. If the size of the project were smaller, it only would require the council’s approval.
* The County Commission plans to discuss the project during its 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting in commission chambers.
* FPL is seeking $2.5 million in state renewable energy grants for the project, which the company estimates will cost about $60.8 million. DEP plans to announce the recipients of the grants by the end of the month.
By Derek Simmonsen
11 February 2008
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