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Archer residents’ demands to Duke Energy lead to second postponement of decision on new shed at substation

Commissioner Anna Prizzia expresses her frustration to Duke Energy

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

In the evening portion of the April 26 Alachua County Commission meeting, the board reconsidered an application from Duke Energy for a new 13×17-foot telecommunications shed within the existing footprint of an Archer substation. The board had previously postponed the application at their December 14, 2021 meeting. 

Duke again presented the scope of their request: a new storm-hardened telecommunications shed within the footprint of an existing fenced area at the substation, along with a propane tank to power an existing generator. The shed will house modems, routers, switches, and hubs to monitor the electric grid; all of that equipment is already on site, but it is housed in structures that do not have sufficient storm-hardening.

In the process of explaining why they had not met with the neighbors following the December 14 meeting, Duke’s representative showed the board a letter from the neighbors’ attorney, Terrell Arline, saying that the neighbors wanted to discuss “compensation,” as well as asking Duke to commit in writing to not building a power plant within 2 miles of the previously-denied location of a solar power plant in Archer (that application was denied on environmental racism grounds). The neighbors also asked Duke to provide grants to weatherize homes for efficiency, upgrade roofs if needed, and provide solar panels for anyone “in our neighborhoods” who is interested. They further asked Duke to relocate some power lines. Duke’s spokesman said the utility could not legally agree to these demands.

Assistant County Attorney Corbin Hansen told the board that any conditions imposed by the County had to be related to the changes being made: “In this situation, what they’re saying, I think, are the proposed conditions from the community in the letter are not rationally related or there’s no nexus between what you’re doing tonight and what would be asked for.” 

Neighbors of the substation gave a presentation about the history of the surrounding area and their concerns. Carolyn Mells said that African-Americans have lived in the community since prior to Reconstruction; churches in the area date back to the 1860s and 1870s. The St. Peter cemetery has graves of residents’ ancestors going back to 1800. She concluded, “In my opinion, I think they’re planning on something bigger instead of just adding this and adding that. I’m concerned about our health and our animals, and I just don’t trust Duke.”

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Peggy Hood discussed studies about how property values decrease near transmission lines and also about impacts on health when people live near power lines. 

Commission Ken Cornell said he was “irritated” and did “not appreciate the fact that we have had four months, and one of my reasons for continuing it [on December 14] was I wanted the community and Duke to meet, to talk, to understand what was happening, that you’re talking about hardening infrastructure and making energy more reliable, they’re talking about impact to their community, and for some reason, it seems like we have to be the mediators, and I don’t understand why.”

Cornell said he was inclined to postpone the issue for another 60 days because “the reason I voted to postpone it was because I wanted y’all to talk… It seems like everybody lawyered up after December 14th, and here we are.”

Duke’s representative, again showing the letter from the neighbors’ attorney on the screen, said their hands were tied once the community was represented by counsel.

Arline, the neighbors’ attorney, said that when he contacted Duke’s Deputy General Counsel after the December 14 meeting, she told him they’d already had two meetings before the December 14 county commission meeting, and they “weren’t going to do it again.”

Cornell said the utility needs to engage the community, even if they can’t meet the demands from the neighbors. “It’s more about engaging with them and talking with them and explaining to them and more importantly, you hear what they want to say.”

Michelle Rutledge, who lives nearby, said the substation was originally placed there in 1962, when “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t safe for our ancestors to even voice their opinion about that.”

Cornell said that even if the neighbors’ conditions couldn’t be met, “a conversation could have been had.” Turning to the Duke Energy representatives, he asked, “What can you do, then? What are you willing to do to recognize that your substation is here… what can you do for the community?” He said he was willing to postpone if Duke was willing to have that conversation, warning, “If you don’t do that, I’ll just decide on the facts.”

Commissioner Anna Prizzia asked Duke Energy about the neighbors’ demand for compensation: “They didn’t say that they want reparations; they just want to have a conversation. You can’t have a conversation about discussing compensation about power lines near their property?”

Hansen said the County could not require that: “That would be unlawful.”

“We could pass this… and move on, but it’s not going to solve the problem of Duke’s relationship with the community of Archer and the longstanding problem of utilities’ relationships with the black community in Alachua County.” – Commissioner Anna Prizzia

Prizzia said she was so frustrated that “literally it makes me want to walk out of here and just be done with this conversation” and that she understood that the neighbors don’t trust Duke and “think they have ulterior motives, and you may be right”; she appreciated that County staff and Duke had agreed to confine the changes to the substation to stay within the current footprint of the enclosure, but “what you didn’t do was take an opportunity to have a conversation with neighbors who feel they were exploited when Duke originally put their high transmission lines through their properties.” She continued, “We could pass this… and move on, but it’s not going to solve the problem of Duke’s relationship with the community of Archer and the longstanding problem of utilities’ relationships with the black community in Alachua County.”

Duke’s representative said they understand the issues of “cultural resources, environmental justice concerns, the historic cemetery” and that they would be happy to have a meeting, but the proposed conditions from the neighbors’ attorney were unrelated to the telecom hardening application, and “we can’t do that.” He said the issues of Duke’s relationship with the community are “separate and we’re weaving them together,” but Duke was willing to meet with the community and explain how they site their transmission lines and other information.

“I think what they’re looking for, first and foremost, is an understanding of why there are transmission lines running through their property that they never necessarily agreed to and for potential compensation or commitment to Duke actually working with the community to provide restitution for the fact that they put those transmission lines in without their consent.” – Commissioner Anna Prizzia

Prizzia said the neighbors aren’t “looking for education about how you site your transmission lines. I think what they’re looking for, first and foremost, is an understanding of why there are transmission lines running through their property that they never necessarily agreed to and for potential compensation or commitment to Duke actually working with the community to provide restitution for the fact that they put those transmission lines in without their consent.”

“[Duke] needs racial sensitivity training… You guys came in with arrogance… .You didn’t want to hear from the community at all… It doesn’t sit well. You’re making people feel like we’re in the ‘50s and ‘60s again.” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said that Duke “needs racial sensitivity training… You guys came in with arrogance… .You didn’t want to hear from the community at all… It doesn’t sit well. You’re making people feel like we’re in the ‘50s and ‘60s again… All we wanted you to do was really speak to the community and have a conversation… Now we’re here today and now I feel like my arm is being twisted because you’re using state statutes and preemption stuff that twists my arm to say that we have to grant this… What is there to have a conversation about when you get what you want today?… Once you get what you want, you’re not going to come back.” He asked Carl Moses, one of the neighbors, what they would have asked for if they’d had the meeting.

Moses said they would have asked for the things in the letter, “what [Duke] could do for the community and people of the community.” He again listed the demands in the letter and added that they would also like Duke to create a training program and hire local residents, create a museum for the descendants of the community, construct a playground, “and maybe publicly support the… Energy Equity Task Force bill.”

Duke then requested a postponement to “actually meet with the community… and discuss all of those.” Hansen reiterated that many of the demands from the community “are things outside the scope of what our land development regulations or comprehensive plan require, so those are not necessarily things that you could use as a basis for any sort of decision.” Chestnut responded, “We just want that dialogue.”

Cornell made a motion to postpone the hearing to June 14 and ask the applicant and the community to have “a minimum of one, hopefully two,” meetings between now and then. The motion passed unanimously. 

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