Before he died in 1994, I got to know Congressman Bob "He-Coon" Sikes pretty well. He represented West Florida in Congress from 1940-1977. When first elected, his congressional district stretched from the Aucilla River west to Pensacola. Sikes was born in South Georgia in 1906. He told me once that the most significant innovation in his lifetime to improve the lives of country folks was rural electrification.
I've been thinking about the He Coon's advice as I've read in our local newspaper the issue of a new east-west powerline that will stretch across Madison County. Every infrastructure project is controversial during the planning stage and construction. Once the project is complete, the controversy generally goes away.
A few years ago, I went thru an infrastructure right-of-way project in another county. I wasn't dealing with NextEra, the parent company of Florida Power and Light (FP&L) that is proposing the new powerline. So let me tell you about my experience so that you can compare what has been reported.
I knew about the project for several years when the construction company first contacted me that my family's timber tract was along the proposed route. The first thing I did was engage a lawyer to represent our interests who had a thorough understanding of Eminent Domain law.
Eminent Domain is where a public works project can legally condemn and take land to complete an infrastructure (powerline, pipeline, highway, railroad, etc.) project that is deemed in the public interest. It is covered within the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution and requires that the property owner be justly compensated for the land.
I wanted a lawyer who would make sure the right language was in the contract and that we would receive fair compensation. I wasn't too worried about the lawyer's fees because I was certain that the construction company would pick up his tab. After all, they started it with their project, and I was right; they paid the freight.
While I would have rather not dealt with the issue in the first place, I understood the reason for the project. Those of us who live in rural America and own ranches, farmland or timberland have to deal with Eminent Domain because we are the path of least resistance. The folks who live in populated areas need infrastructure and it is going to come thru rural lands that are mostly vacant.
My experience over four years with the construction company was very professional. They never threatened me with legal action. They always kept me informed as to what was happening. They held public meetings and hearings to explain their project and listen to the public. They always called me when their crews were going to be conducting any survey or related activity. I received written information thru the mail to help me understand what would be happening next.
What they wanted from me was a right-of-way to install their project across our timber tract. They brought me and my legal advisors an offer and we bombarded them with questions which they were unable to answer. A few months later, they asked, "What do you want for the right-of-way?" We went back to them with a counteroffer backed with data and they accepted the offer quickly. All in all, it was a very successful process from my perspective. We experienced the same thing during the construction phase – very professional. That was two years ago and the project has been in operation since.
Electricity is a funny thing. We take it for granted. Our lives are highly dependent on it. We might complain about the bill each month, but we expect the power to work. When the power is interrupted, our lives are disrupted until the linemen get out and restore power. I consider linemen ‘first responders' because they are so important when the lights (and air conditioning) go out.
Florida is one of the fastest growing states in the country. We need additional infrastructure to support the growing population. NextEra's FP&L is the largest energy provider in the state. They also have the country's most robust solar energy development. Fortunately for all of us, they look far in advance with their strategic planning.
My advice to landowners who might be affected by this proposed power transmission line would go like this. Get your facts from knowledgeable sources and stay away from rumor and gossip. Find a lawyer who understands Eminent Domain law to represent you. Turn a negative into a positive by making the project work in your interest.