BOCC approves Duke Energy exception with warning

The Alachua County Administration Building in Gainesville
The Alachua County Administration Building in Gainesville.

After eight months and three separate Alachua County meetings, Duke Energy received a special exception on Tuesday for its electric substation in Archer, allowing the company to upgrade an existing telecom shelter with enhanced storm hardening.  

While the legal proceedings ended at the meeting, Duke Energy said it will continue discussions with the Archer community, specifically the Saint Peter Saint Paul Community Council. The two groups have met multiple times to hash out agreements.  

At Tuesday’s meeting, Duke Energy agreed to not build a solar array within two miles of the Archer Substation, 10329 SW 154th St., and said it would help fund a playground in the community with $30,000. A Duke Energy official added that the community could apply for additional grants through the company as well. 

“We’ve committed to continuing the conversations,” Danielle Peoples, director of infrastructure engagement for Duke Energy, said at the meeting. “There are some items that we can explore; there are some items—because we’re a regulated utility and have to follow state, federal local statutes—that we won’t be able to commit to you. But we want to offer explanations to that.” 

The community said these concessions needed bolstering with one resident called $30,000 “an insult” compared to the $250,000 cost to build the playground. The Archer residents, represented by attorney Terrell Arline, also asked for Duke Energy to commit to not building a solar array within three miles of the substation. 

To close the gap between the parties, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) had the parties discuss in a conference room while they continued with the meeting.  

On returning, Arline said the community would agree with the proposed language for Duke Energy’s special exception. The language requires the company to mail notification of any future expansion on the site to all neighbors within one mile or to abide by the regulations in Alachua County’s code—whichever is greater.  

“I think that they’re saying, ‘trust us and we’ll meet with you, and we’ll talk about these other items,’ and I’ll recommend that my clients do that,” Arline said. 

Alachua County staff said conditions involving playgrounds and promises to not build solar wouldn’t be part of the legal side of the proceedings. A county attorney also said language that required the Duke Energy substation to abide by current standards instead of different standards that come in the future would be unenforceable.  

Duke Energy first came to the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) in December 2021, but the commission postponed a decision so that the company could address document language and further engage with the citizens.  

In April, the company returned but still ran into issues. The BOCC said the company had failed to engage the community and its problems with the substation that stretch back decades. The parties had communicated through lawyers since December but not met in person again.

At the April meeting, Commissioner Ken Cornell said he was irritated with the outcome after the months between the December and April meeting, saying his primary reason for postponing was for the groups to meet. The BOCC decided to postpone again. 

Between the April and August commission meetings, Duke Energy and the Archer residents came together three times — twice in person and once virtually. Duke Energy also brought in a professional mediator to help bridge the divide.  

At August’s meeting, the commission approved Duke Energy’s special application, but a secondary motion also directed staff to report back in 60 days on how the conversations between the company and the citizens continued.  

Besides the playground and solar array promise, the two were also trying to create a memorandum of understanding, grant easement documentation and craft a state bill concerning justice in energy. The company has shared easement documentation and rights of way with requesting parties and said it would continue the practice.

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut told Duke Energy that he hoped the conversations would go forward and gave a warning if they failed.  

“When you give me a reason to distrust you, that’s for life,” Chestnut said. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

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