PSC: We have the power

By Steve Estes

The Florida Public Service Commission Tuesday ruled just as has been predicted for several months, ruling it had the jurisdiction over the electrification of No Name Key, but admitting it can’t issue building permits to the residents to hook into the energized power poles.

The commission voted 5-0 to exercise its authority to determine its own jurisdiction in the issue, which is whether the 43 homes on No Name Key can be hooked up to the commercial power grid.

According to at least one commissioner, electricity is a “fundamental right” and thus the vote to allow power to the island. Of course, that opinion stands directly in contradiction to a court ruling saying exactly the opposite, a ruling that has never been overturned by any court.

That decision put the final decision on whether permits can be issued squarely back in the lap of the Monroe Board of County Commissioners.

It has been the county’s position for more than a decade that the extension of public utilities to or through areas designated as part of the federal Coastal Barrier Resource System is prohibited by its land use codes.

Under that prohibition, county staff says it has been unable to issue building permits to the property owners

The PSC agreed with its staff report that it cannot direct the BOCC to issue the permits, but strongly urged the BOCC to allow that to happen.

A final order on the issue could be as long as early June, but according to County Attorney Bob Shillinger, he has been told that it might be as early as next week.

When he announced that decision to the BOCC Wednesday, Shillinger opined that county counsel wasn’t very optimistic that an appeal of the PSC decision to the Florida Supreme Court would be of much benefit.

Of course, anyone connected with the issue, either pro-power groups on No Name Key or anti-power groups on No Name Key, can appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court.

That appeal won’t be coming from the BOCC. The commissioners decided Wednesday not to spend any more time litigating the PSC avenue.

Former Department of Community Affairs General Counsel Shaw Stiller told the PSC in Tuesday’s hearing that “chipping away at Monroe County’s ordinances that help it direct growth away from environmentally sensitive areas” isn’t in the best interests of the county.

“The development pressure is there. Utilities will only make that worse,” said Stiller.

Charles Pattison, president of the state environmental group 1,000 Friends of Florida, rebuked PSC members for their stance that commercial utilities don’t promote human development when other controls are in place.

“Utility extensions are a key part of growth management in many communities,” said Pattison. “If you rule the county can’t control that, we will see unintended consequences.”

Monroe County had argued that the PSC didn’t have jurisdiction to decide whether permits could be issued to the homeowners, but didn’t dispute that the PSC could order the electrical grid to be extended into sensitive environmental areas by the use of public rights-of-way and private easements.

Deb Swim, attorney representing the Solar Community members on No Name Key, all staunchly against the extension of electrical power, told the public service commissioners that approval of the issue over Monroe County’s land use regulation would constitute an “extend the lines anywhere” approach never before practiced in the state, and ultimately could affect even more environmentally sensitive areas of greater concern to the state, such as the Everglades.

No Name Key Property Owner Association attorney Andy Tobin said he felt the PSC did have complete jurisdiction and “If you allow Monroe County to decode who does and doesn’t get commercial power, you are setting a statewide precedent that will eventually undermine your ability to guarantee the coordinated service of electrical power to other areas of the state.”

With the PSC decision fresh in hand, the BOCC took up the question of what to do next Wednesday.

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