Levy County family laments Sabal Trail’s impact on their land
Story by Andrew Caplan. Photos & video by Andrea Cornejo / The Gainesville Sun
The rumbling from excavators and front loaders begin shaking Robin Koon’s mobile home as early as 7 a.m.
Men step out of white trucks, wearing hardhats and orange vests, and begin shouting directions to one another. The men aren’t from Florida. Their truck doors say “Price Gregory” and their license plates read “Texas.”
Koon isn’t home yet from his morning school bus route. His mother, Ruby Koon, who has dementia, is.
During the commotion, his mother opens the front door — which reads “Mom, use this door only” in green marker — only to see heavy machinery running over the property where five family members’ ashes were spread.
Gainesville Sun reporter Andrew Caplan and photojournalist Andrea Cornejo spent several weeks documenting the impact construction of the 515-mile Sabal Trail pipeline has on residents in Alachua, Marion, Levy, Gilchrist and Citrus counties.
While the note on the door is a daily reminder of his mother’s illness, the commotion outside reminds the family of its battle against an electric company which has, at least temporarily, ended their peace and privacy in rural Levy County.
Back in October when The Sun first met Koon, 56, he was set to take on Spectra Energy, Duke Energy and NextEra Energy and the 515-mile, $3.2 billion pipeline that runs through the middle of his property. He vowed to stop construction in his yard at all costs.
It was a David and Goliath tale, only Koon didn’t have a stone, nor a slingshot.
“It’s not that I’ve given up,” he said. “I’m just beat down right now. I’m trying to figure out what the hell I can do.”
Koon, a Bronson resident of 30 years, is just one of about 1,550 homeowners who have properties in the path of the Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline that spans 25 counties from Alabama through Central Florida.
He is also one of about 170 sued under eminent domain proceedings by Sabal Trail, giving the company a legal path through Koon’s land. The company promises to restore the property to its pre-construction state, something Koon believes is impossible.
He argued unsuccessfully for the pipeline to be rerouted, pointing to his mother’s deteriorating health and the makeshift scatter-garden where the five family members’ ashes were spread.
Spectra Energy spokeswoman Andrea Grover said lawsuits were filed as a “last resort” and 89 percent of the landowners accepted financial compensation in exchange for allowing the company to bury its pipeline 3 feet deep on their properties.
However, in March, just 12 days after Sabal Trail filed a federal lawsuit against Koon, the company struck a deal with Levy County officials for access to public right-of-way and utility crossings — permits that cost the company $155,000, records show.
When the The Sun first told Koon’s story, Grover was asked if it was too late for Koon to seek a reroute away from his scatter garden. Because the route was based on an environmental study and discussions from public meetings years earlier, Grover said it was too late. Sabal Trail has all the necessary rights for the lands it needs for the project, she added.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Koon said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
Robin Koon walks down what is left of his property in Bronson after it was cleared for a natural gas pipeline.
“I know these government officials are being backed by these power companies,” Koon said. “I just wish people would think about the smaller people a little bit.”
Koon could have called protesters to his land to stymie, if not stop, construction. Many offered that help. Thousands shared his story through social media, some going as far to try to claim his land as a “tribal burial site.” But protesters and police would mean more chaos for his mother to deal with.
“Mom has gone from bad to worse just in this past month,” said Koon in December. “It’s affecting her worse than I thought it would. She never really gets no rest.”
Robin Koon comforts his mother, Ruby, while showing her what is left of their property, after it was cleared for a natural gas pipeline. “How many burial grounds,” he said, “how much history are they wiping out with that pipeline?”
He says police have been out to the property several times due to altercations with Sabal Trail’s contract workers. When he walks over to where the unmarked ashes of his dad, stepson, stepdad and brother and brother-in-law are spread, he said he’s told to halt unless he wants to be arrested for felony trespassing.
“You have to understand, this is my property and they just took it for private profit,” he said. “I didn’t know that buying property or land means it’s not really mine.”
In part, Koon blames himself for the way things are going. He ignored the lawsuit — and further mailings — after receiving what he considered an “insulting” $1,400 offer in January 2015. He wishes he had documented the construction process earlier or had been able to afford a lawyer.
Construction of the pipeline is well underway in Levy County and nearing its completion, with an in-service date set for summer 2017.
“We can’t do a damn thing about it,” he said. “I don’t understand the United States anymore.”
Contact reporter Andrew Caplan at [email protected] or on Twitter @AACaplan.