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Originally published: 2012-08-02 13:13:24
Last modified: 2012-08-02 13:13:24

Transmission line decision within 30 days

Justin Grimes / (averyjournalist@gmail.com)

Avery County residents and property owners, including Camp Lutherock, anxiously await Mountain Electric Cooperative’s route choice for its proposed 69,000-volt transmission line that will connect a future electrical substation in the Village of Sugar Mountain with Banner Elk and Newland. 

The proposed 69 kV transmission line requires a right of way of 75 feet. The distribution lines that now serve the area are 13,000 volts and have a right of way between 30 and 40 feet. 

Notification of the final route selection is expected within 30 days, if not sooner, according to MEC.After acquiring property for the substation in fall 2011, MEC began the process of sighting possible routes over a 6.5-square-mile area with the help of Pike Electric Corporation, an energy engineering company from Charlotte. 

According to documents provided, 843 property owners and 25 public officials from Avery County were invited to a community workshop on Nov. 29, 2011; 36 people attended the November meeting and 123 returned questionnaires. 

Sixty-two people attended the second MEC community workshop on April 24, where 12 alternative route segments were presented.

Some of the possible routes cross the 821-acre Lutherock Natural Heritage Area, which encompasses the west and northwest sides of Sugar Mountain and is ranked as significant by North Carolina Natural Heritage Program because of its rare species and highest-ranked quality northern hardwood forests. 

The site also has the highest ranking for biodiversity and wildlife habitat from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ One N.C. Naturally Initiative.

On June 29, N.C. Natural Heritage Program expanded the Lutherock Natural Area, adding 244 acres, which includes the former Banner Farm, the namesake for Banner Elk. 

“We have invested a lot to do the right thing for our membership,” said Richard Grubb, director of engineering and operations for MEC. “Pike Electric has the best evaluation process in the country. They consider land use, cultural, environmental and scenic resources.

“The final choice will be the best environmentally friendly route where cost is not prohibitive,” Grubb said.

“My neighbors and I are concerned about power towers cutting a large swath through our property which is a Natural Heritage area; fracturing the globally imperiled forest,” said Dot Griffith, Avery landowner and part of a contiguous group of landowners that may be impacted by the route selection and are not happy about the selection process.

“We think there should more public meetings. The two workshops were held when no one was in town; summer residents weren’t here. I didn’t even get the notifications that MEC sent or did many others,” Griffith said. “I feel like the community doesn’t know the story.

“I want the residents of Avery to know that Pike Electric Corporation working for MEC has not been helpful in telling us why they want to go across our property when the existing routes where they already have power lines seem like the most logical and less environmentally intrusive routes to take,” Griffith explained.

Echoing similar sentiments and concerns, Keith Johnson, executive director of Lutheridge/Lutherock Ministries, which serves Lutheran congregations from seven Southeastern states, said that his organization had legal counsel and was prepared to protect the Lutherock Natural Area.

“In 2002, we purchased 254 additional acres at a cost of $2 million to provide a buffer for our wilderness camp. So you can see why we are motivated to protect our investment,” Johnson said. “The land itself is a classroom. An electric transmission line by MEC would impact the visual scenic beauty and the ecological integrity of endangered ecosystems, species, natural streams and their riparian zones. 

“The North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has passed a unanimous resolution requesting that MEC find an alternate route for its electric transmission line outside of Camp Lutherock and the Lutherock Natural Area. 

“We have also started a letter writing campaign to appropriate officials,” Johnson said. “I want readers to know that we have a significant impact on the local economy. Thousands of youth, adults and families attend our camp annually and many return to vacation.”

Dwight Hollifield of Pike Electric said one of the common concerns was from a scenic point of view. Consequently, Pike Electric engaged landscape architects to visualize scenic implications of alternative routes. He also said that in his many years of experience the least expensive route is seldom the final pick.

The project is estimated to cost between $3 and $4 million. “We are not looking to do the cheapest route. I don’t anticipate a significant difference in costs between the corridors,” Grubb said.

Property owners along the final route chosen by the MEC Board will be notified by certified mail; then the general public will be notified of the route by press releases, according to Grubb. 

Right of ways will be purchased in accordance with fair market values under Eminent Domain statutes.

Since funding for the project is coming from the Rural Utilities Service, MEC is required to submit an environmental impact study demonstrating that the project meets the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the U.S. Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and any other federal regulation or Executive Orders applicable to the project — published in Title 7 Code of Federal Regulations, part 1794.

According to a document dated July 12, 2012, from the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Rural Electrification Authority, “MEC feels this project meets and exceeds the requirements of Title 7, part 1794, which does not require public forums or community workshops or any other forms of communications with individual landowners in the vicinity of projects.”

MEC said that it did not intend to have another public meeting.