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Astute Green Readers have been following the discussion of proposed siting of a biomass plant on Roberts Avenue in Tallahassee's southside. To catch up, this link collects a number of local articles on the issue. Also, read the Florida Environmental News article about Florida's approach to land use planning and its public process. Erwin Jackson, a local Realtor and property owner in the areas around the proposed site has funded placement of the signs pictured above on Railroad Avenue and Gaines Street and near FSU.

First, it is interesting to note that original objections from Commissioner Bill Proctor were right on target, although perhaps not well-informed. Any community activists can tell you where, historically, the polluting plants, garbage dumps are located and where the tainted waters flow. It's not unreasonable to think that a number of Tallahassee residents had this immediate reaction when the biomass plant was announced.

Second, promoting the plant as progress toward 'clean energy' by burning something proves a fallacy in these times of more innovative, clean energy technology.

Third, we acknowledge the healthy debate created by this proposal. In other areas of Florida and across the US, the plant would have been sited and little discussion would have taken place. Whatever we think about the pros and cons of the biomass plant, we thank Tallahassee's citizens by providing forums for discussion and information gathering. Perhaps a little more of this at the front-end (two years ago? * October 17, 2006 when the Florida Cabinet approved the sublease of the Roberts Avenue site to BG & E)
would have provided a constructive approach, rather than what appears to be a response to some vocal advocates in opposition to the plant. The final hearing on the FSU campus master plan, which includes the proposal for siting the biomass plant, will be held on January 29, 2009.

Now, it's your turn. The Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), which has not taken an official position regarding the proposed plant, is hosting a meeting:

Monday, January 5th, beginning at 6:00 PM
at Jacob Chapel Freewill Baptist Church, 2333 Lake Bradford Road.
The church is located near the intersection of Lake Bradford Road and West Orange Avenue. You may travel this way to the airport--see Google map below. It's about 2 1/2 miles from the proposed plant site.

Stephen Hogge, President of CONA, promises the meeting to be a "structured and fact-driven" meeting with opportunity for audience members to ask questions. Panelists will include Wilson Barnes, Tallahassee NAACP, Mark Bertolami, Director of Facilities Planning at FSU, Rob Brinkman, Sierra Club of Florida, Ben Cowart, Energy Services City of Tallahassee, Glenn Farris, Biomass Gas and Electric, Inc., Dr. Scott Hannahs, Citizens United for Responsible Growth, Terrance Hinson, Hinson Realty, Dorothy Inman-Johnson, Capital Area Community Action Agency, Alex Mahon, Leon County Health Department, David Read, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Deb Swim, Environmental/Energy Attorney and Wayne Tedder, Tallahassee/Leon County Planning Department.

Marjorie Turnball will moderate.


I attended last night's CONA meeting on the biomass plant proposal. Here are some observations, flawed no doubt by my inability to hear everything that was said (Hearing problem). This was the first problem: the moderator had a microphone,-- suggesting that someone perceived the need for one,-- but none of the panelists nor speakers from the community.

This deficiency exacerbated the effect of the lack of any visual aid support of the discussion. This would have been needed not only to support the audience's understanding of some substance issues: site conditions, the energy production process including transportation issues to/from the site, alternative sites if any, the permitting and decision-making process etc. Most urgently helpful would have been a visual overview 'map' of the issues at stake, which in such a complex project are many and interconnected. The expedient, conventional approach of holding such a meeting with only speaking contributions is not only excruciatingly inefficient (in that it constrains progress to the speaking speed of one speaker at a time, at orders of magnitude less than the speed at which the human eye can absorb information) but also makes the outcome vulnerable to the overemphasis of one or a few issues. Such issues may be the ones used initially to 'frame' the discussion (but thereby also pushing others, perhaps more controversial ones, aside) or issues arising late in the process and thus acting as the 'last word' that usually tends to influence decisions more than what was said before. I leave it to you to ponder the prevailing attitude that many people in the meeting walked away with after last night's 'last word'.

I will not argue whether the meeting adequately allowed all pertinent issues to be aired. One issue that was not addressed, as far as I was able to pick up, was this:
If such a project is generally deemed desirable -- e.g. for reasons of diversifying the energy supply, or reducing cost of energy, all plausible reasons regardless of where one's priorities lay -- what is or should be done to make it acceptable to those people who now, for equally plausible reasons (e.g. yes, there will be emissions with potential health consequences, yes, there will be noise, yes, there will be traffic and impact on property values, etc.) are not convinced that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and costs, and their distribution? Shouldn't this have been one main concern of the discussion?

The fact that this issue did not receive attention can give rise to suspicions -- such as that the purpose of the meeting was merely to assure opponents that their concerns are not valid (while the decision to go ahead is a foregone conclusion) -- which in itself is likely to be perceived as a condescending and therefore unacceptable attitude. And therefore opens the door for opponents whose main concerns may be suspected to be more of a political nature: enhancing their position and power as forces in the community (even if they don't get their way with this project), than actually reaching a result that improves the welfare of affected people and the community as a whole. (Such effects must be expected regardless of the validity of such suspicions).

One of my interests is the study of issues and arguments in such planning projects, and how they might be evaluated. (I have developed a technique for doing that) which may be going too far here). A main tool for helping participants in such a decision-making process to maintain overview is the preparation (and if possible, real-time interactive updating) of visual maps of all the issues being discussed: issue maps and argument maps. A simple, easy to achieve first approximation would be a large wall covered with paper, upon which new items can be entered as they occur, and perhaps a camera projecting the specific part of the map just being discussed onto a screen. The discussion would be interrupted by breaks during which participants could add their own contributions to the map.

I would be happy to provide details on this on request. Both because of their substance and of the (political) process with which they are decided, issues like this are too important for the community to be left open to misinterpretation and manipulation. Let me know how I can help. To allay suspicions of partisanship in this issue, let me state that I myself have not reached a position on the biomass plant. Not that this matters since I have no say in it whatsoever anyway. I came to the meeting slightly in favor (of such a project in general) but left it with many more doubts and unresolved questions; in part because of the inefficiency of the meeting format itself -- the wise and able moderating by Marjorie Turnbull notwithstanding.


Thorbjoern Mann


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