FPL Power Plant in Florida Panther Refuge Stymied by Seminole Lawsuit

A state court judge last week blocked Florida Power & Light's plans to build an immense new gas-fired power plant in Hendry County, on environmentally sensitive, historically significant land that adjoins the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.

See also: Seminoles to Protest FPL Power Plant on Earth Day

In a 32-page order that turned on the question of the legal definition of the word "utilities," Charlotte Circuit Judge Donald H. Mason held that Hendry County officials had illegally granted approval for the plant in a location forbidden under the county's land use regulations.

While victory turned on a seeming legal technicality, the deeper issues that drove the case, filed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida in June 2011, touched on questions of environmental and cultural preservation.

In its April 2013 ten-year power plant site plan, FPL stated:

FPL strives to have no adverse impacts on federal- or state-listed terrestrial plants and animals... Although few or no impacts are expected in association with future construction at the [Hendry] site, FPL anticipates minimizing or mitigating for unavoidable wildlife or wetland impacts.

FPL's plans for the Hendry site had grown through the years, evolving from a 1,500-acre solar energy facility to a plant double that size and featuring three natural gas units with nine smokestacks each as high as 150 feet -- a mirror image of the company's West County Energy Center in Palm Beach County, which annually produces 9.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

FPL Power Plant in Florida Panther Refuge Stymied by Seminole Lawsuit

The Seminoles' numerous objections were summarized in their paper, the Seminole Tribune:

The site sits on proven habitat for several threatened or endangered species, including the crested caracara bird, snail kite bird, eastern indigo snakes and Florida panther. Further, the property and surrounding land is known by Tribal historians to hold relics and artifacts that date back to Native ancestors.

The case had bounced around in the courts, with appellate rulings in favor of both the Tribe and its opponents -- FPL, Hendry County, and McDaniel Reserve Realty Holdings, a multi-state development company owned by Palm Beach Gardens resident Eddie Garcia. The Tribe filed suit after Garcia -- who has a past dogged by charges of environmental recklessness -- convinced Hendry Commissioners to rezone more than 3000 acres of land which Garcia then sold to FPL.

The Tribe's fight drew the support of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the South Florida Wildlands Association, and Everglades Earth First!, who organized and marched against the FPL project.

"Although we're extremely happy that the Seminoles won this battle over zoning, we are also aware that Florida's Power Plant Siting Act provides other options to FPL for getting this land zoned for a power plant," Wildlands Association Executive Director Matt Schwartz wrote in a Facebook post. "These plants are among the largest fossil fuel plants in the country. Please help out however you can - we expect to be seeing an encyclopedia sized application from FPL for their power plant sometime soon."

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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