Tiny Florida Key Divides Over Plan to Get on Grid

But these days, good karma is sorely missing on No Name Key. The 1,200-acre island has been riven by two warring camps of residents who have pleaded, sued, offended and, ultimately, turned their backs on each other in a fight over power, the kind that gets piped in by an electric company.

“It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys here,” Dave Eaken, 41, a longtime resident who wants commercial power, said about the split on the island. His father, Bob, has waited decades for public electricity, which he said he was promised when he first bought land on No Name Key in the 1960s. “I don’t look at those people. I don’t talk to them, and I don’t want to talk to them.”

“If they want to remain off the grid, go for it,” he added, recalling years of sticky sleepless nights and stealth attacks by no-see-ums, the tiny insects that squeeze through screens. “Have fun. Just don’t tell me what to do.”

At the heart of the 15-year battle is whether, after a lifetime of deriving electricity from solar power or generators or both, No Name Key should move into the last century and lay down power lines. This now looks increasingly inevitable. Barring one last-ditch court injunction, the island and its 43 houses could have public electricity for the first time by the end of August.

The ones who want power have had to pay handsomely for it. Thirty residents, including an insurance company owner, real estate brokers, a marine biologist and government workers, have split the $648,000 payment to the Keys Electric company for the cost of legal fees and for erecting poles, running lines and bringing in power. Keys Electric has not brought electricity to No Name Key until now, officials said, because there were too few homes to make the project financially feasible.

As with so many protracted conflicts, this one is rooted in intangibles. What is the island’s identity? Should environmental purists prevail over pragmatists? Is it wrong to force conformity on homeowners?

And last, but far from least, don’t South Floridians have an inalienable right to hassle-free air-conditioning in the summer, when humidity, rain and insects conspire to squeeze misery through open windows and doors?

For Alicia Putney, 61, the tireless (her adversaries say fanatical) leader of the anti-utilities brigade whose salt-and-pepper hair trails down her back in a braid, these questions are ridiculous.

Solar works, she said, and her house, which she built using keystone coral with her husband in the 1980s, is proof. Putney does not even rely on a generator, she adds. If she, as a widow, can do it, so can others.

Sitting at her dining room table one rainy afternoon, she extolled the virtues of living off the grid. Islanders rely on large cisterns for water. There is no central sewage system. No unsightly electric poles mar the views. Placing the island on the grid, she lamented, will destroy its character.

“It will take away our sense of selves, of living in a solar community,” said Putney, who has staved off attempts to hook up the island for 15 years. She also fears that utilities will usher in development. “We feel what we are doing is a good thing,” she said.

“I thought times had evolved,” she added.

Putney’s opponents say she does not get it. No Name Key evolved into a solar community by circumstance, not by choice. It was not planned. Many residents love the island, its emptiness and its quick access to the water, so they chose to adapt.

But they say this kind of rural life is not easy. Even large solar systems, which are expensive, cannot run air-conditioning and appliances together in the summer, when rain is torrential, they said. So a vast majority of residents supplement with generators (some of them diesel) and banks of batteries, which pollute the air, require costly maintenance and disturb the peace with the racket.

Bringing in electricity is not ideal, but it is reality, they say. It is also not a radical change — nothing like a casino or a strip shopping mall. It is just easy access to electricity, they say.

In their view, commercial electricity would make the island more environmentally friendly. It would allow them to use their solar systems without generators and eventually sell their unused solar power to the grid. During winter, islanders produce an excess of solar power, which they say goes to waste. Public electricity also means the island can shift to a central sewer system from septic tanks, some of which are old and leaky, residents said.

“It doesn’t work for so many different reasons,” said Beth Vickrey, 48, whose house has the island’s fifth largest solar system but still requires a generator in summer. “People like to imagine it as a green dream, but it’s not.”

She and other pro-power residents have a name for it: “the green lie.”

Under their logic, those who do not want electricity should not use it. And development on the island, land that is protected by federal, state and county laws, is highly unlikely because of strict codes, they say.

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