Opposing lines: Owner, groups, utility disagree about placing power lines through Box Creek

The big picture: The Box Creek Wilderness is North Carolina’s largest private Registered Natural Heritage Area. photo by Lloyd Wright, courtesy of Unique Places
The big picture: The Box Creek Wilderness is North Carolina’s largest private Registered Natural Heritage Area. photo by Lloyd Wright, courtesy of Unique Places

Months of debate, studies and discussion about where Rutherford Electric Membership Corporation should build 2.5 miles of power lines have come to a halt: In January, REMC asked for an easement that would let the utility build power lines through Box Creek Wilderness, a 5,100-acre tract east of Asheville that straddles the county line between Rutherford and McDowell. But recently, local groups and the property owner launched a campaign against the request, including a petition, Facebook page and video.

Owned by Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney, Box Creek is home to many rare and imperiled species, some of them found nowhere else; it also contains several archaeological sites. Last June, the property became North Carolina’s largest privately owned Registered Natural Heritage Area; there are 337 RNHAs in the state, and most of them are public lands.

Last fall, Sweeney and REMC staff started negotiating a new transmission line that the utility says it needs to supply power to approximately 1,900 homes, businesses and other service members in McDowell County. "Western North Carolina is growing and changing, and we have to provide infrastructure for people who live in this area. We can’t go back to using kerosene lamps," says Joe Joplin, REMC's general manager.

Those 1,900 customers currently get their electrical service via lines coming from an REMC station in nearby Morganton, but the capacity is nearly maxed out, he explains.

Mindful of the land’s environmental value, Joplin says that REMC "exhausted an extensive study of alternatives." The utility hired independent consultants and firms to do environmental and archeological assessments, he notes. Those studies yielded no better route, he says. "There’s no room to work line up through there,” says Joplin. He also cites the widening of Highway 221 as a barrier to taking other possible routes and says, at this time, it's not practical to share a route that Duke Energy uses.

But Durham-based nonprofit Unique Places to Save commissioned an independent study and suggests an alternative route that runs northwest of the property (see the map). Its study authors concluded that the environmental “impact [of REMC’s] route would be extensive, long-term and irreparable.”

Unique Places’ CEO Jeff Fisher says, "This is not a NIMBY, 'Don't build the power line [argument].’ It's, ‘Build the power line in a way that is smart.’” REMC’s proposal “is not smart,” he says. “It costs more and it's environmentally destructive.”

In a press release from the nonprofit, Sweeney echoes the sentiment: "I'm going to do everything I can to protect this beautiful, unique ecosystem from the proposed devastation. … This is a State Natural Heritage Area with over 100 identified rare species of plants and animals, and REMC's plan to chop it in half with a utility line is madness.”

Unique Places recently released a video, launched a Facebook campaign and started a petition, all aimed at fighting REMC’s proposal and suggesting what the nonprofit considers to be cheaper and easier routes.

Joplin counters, "What we're asking for is 30.14 acres of transmission line of right-of-way [that] meanders along [12 acres of] existing logging roads," he says.

The utility would address environmental concerns, he says. “Whenever we will clear the trees, we will do a ground cover to make sure everything comes back in its natural state — back in grasses and briars and all kinds of things,” Joplin explains. “Animals, birds, quail and deer use this area — they flourish [there]. Really, we're just converting it from one use to the other."

General manager since 2004, he urges people to consider the community impact, too, when thinking about the proposed route through Box Creek Wilderness.

“I hate it and I’m sorry, but I feel strongly that people in Rutherford, rural McDowell, public schools, churches and the elderly deserve quality electric service and reliable electric service," Joplin says. "We feel like our members deserve electrical service. It’s something that we’ve got to do."

At press time, the petition had gathered more than 600 signatures.

— For more information, see Susan Andrew’s July 4, 2012, Xpress article “Critical Steppingstone: Box Creek Wilderness Gets Reprieve,” available online at avl.mx/r2. For updates on this ongoing story, go to mountainx.com/environment.

Caitlin Byrd can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or cbyrd@mountainx.com.

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