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For tiny Apalachicola, an 11th-hour fight to stop giant utility poles from invading its historic downtown

Even sleepy Apalachicola, tucked on the remote Gulf Coast 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee, gets angry when its tourist business as Florida's second-oldest city and longtime seafood mecca for oyster lovers comes under attack.

Come Saturday morning, the town — population 2,400 — will dress in black and hold a mock funeral, New Orleans style, for Apalachicola's historic downtown district. Cause of death? A wave of new and taller electric power poles, part of a 38-mile modernization project by Progress Energy Florida, that will soon loom over the heart of the town's tourist district.

Welcome to the title match between Old Florida charm and modern corporate efficiency. Apalachicola swears it got coldcocked by the utility wielding a decades-old franchise agreement signed by the city with what was then Florida Power Corp. That agreement calls for the utility to periodically modernize its services, a clause the city never imagined meant bringing in bigger concrete power poles.

Progress Energy Florida spokesman Rob Sumner, who's tracking Apalachicola's 11th hour resistance movement, says the utility started holding meetings in Apalachicola about rebuilding the 80-year-old transmission route as far back as 2006. The company wants to minimize additional costs. "It is always most cost efficient to follow the existing route," he says.

Rerouting nearly three dozen poles around downtown at this point is a big deal involving property rights, additional costs and persuading new landowners to let transmission lines run across their land. Putting power lines underground — the city's preference — costs close to $10 million a mile. That expense would be charged to the city, which in this economy is already strapped for funds.

The new concrete poles average 80 feet in height — 15 feet taller than the wooden poles there now. Locals worry the new poles sully a downtown thick with National Registry buildings like the Gibson Inn and a 35-foot height limit on new buildings.

"The poles are hideous and change the nature and complexion of our community," steams Apalachicola native Tom Daly. A retired Tampa banker, Daly returned home and serves as president of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society.

"The bottom line is they are putting up an electric superhighway where they once had an electric path through this town," he says.

Closer to home, a related controversy occurred in 2003 when Tampa Electric Co., owned by TECO Energy, began installing 125-foot utility poles in a modest neighborhood near Tampa known as Egypt Lake. The neighborhood fought the installation and lost, but Tampa Electric got branded for corporate indifference.

In Apalachicola on Tuesday night, the town's City Commission voted unanimously to send a letter to Progress Energy asking the utility to delay installation of any more poles until the city gets better information and a more accurate price tag for either rerouting the taller power poles or putting them underground through an image-conscious downtown.

But cold reality suggests Progress Energy is quite content to wrap up its new pole installation before the end of this year. Utility spokesman Sumner on Wednesday said he's seen no request for delay from Apalachicola. Belatedly trying to attract attention, the city just hired Jacksonville area lawyer Buddy Jacobs, known for fighting historic preservation causes, to ask for help from federal and state politicians. Even a lawsuit is not out of the question, but city leaders are well aware they are wandering into an arena requiring deep pockets.

"I do think our City Commission is insecure," Daly says. "I don't know if there is anything Progress Energy could do to us, but we are intimidated in some respects by this" company worth billions of dollars.

Should Progress Energy prevail, the real tragedy is how few Floridians took the time to visit Apalachicola and remember it before bigger, uglier power poles arrived to keep things modern.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

For tiny Apalachicola, an 11th-hour fight to stop giant utility poles from invading its historic downtown 11/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 7:45am]
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