Sparks flew at Isaac Dickson Elementary School as parents, officials and concerned citizens gathered in the school gymnasium on Sunday, May 31, to discuss Duke Energy’s plan to install an electrical substation nearby.
Deanna Border, co-president of the Isaac Dickson Parent Teacher Organization, kicked off the forum by explaining the agenda and the rules of conduct and introducing the people sitting at either side of her on the stage.
To her right was a table of government officials: Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, State Senator Terry Van Duyn, and David Gantt, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
To Border’s left was a table of concerned parents who would, later in the evening, fire questions across the stage at the officials opposite them.
But first, Steve Agan, a parent and local attorney, gave a presentation to catch everyone up to speed from the meeting organizers’ perspective.
“Beginning in 2013, Duke Energy first approached the city,” Agan said, “indicating that they needed to build three new substations in the central area of the city to meet the city’s growing needs for electricity.”
According to the presentation, in February 2014, the city of Asheville made a good faith agreement to support Duke Energy in locating parcels of land, the purpose of which would be the construction of a new utility substation.
In fall 2014, Duke Energy presented a list of potential sites to Cathy Ball, the city’s director of Public Works. One of these sites was a long, curving tract of land that straddled Cross Street and Hill Street like an oddly shaped pair of legs. And between the feet of those legs lies the new location of Isaac Dickson Elementary School.
On Dec. 18, 2014, Duke Energy bought this land for $5.35 million. Two other properties were purchased, one on Biltmore Avenue and one on Hilliard Avenue.
Agan continued, saying that everyone in the Isaac Dickson gymnasium was concerned about the danger such a structure would represent. Some believe the electromagnetic fields would emit cancer-causing radiation. Kids have been known to wander too close to substations and get electrocuted. And finally, substations do, on occasion, like the one in Montgomery County on May 6, explode.
“What the city can do, however,” Agan said, “is enact a moratorium on new construction of major utilities,” a statement that caused an eruption of enthusiastic applause from the audience.
Agan talked about what other communities in North Carolina had done when they were faced with similar problems, and the solutions they found. Garner, Kill Devil Hills and Swain County all dealt with problematic substations and transmission lines in different ways, he said — either by forcing the installations to a different spot or delaying the construction until a better time.
“Our point is, we don’t think it makes sense to put a substation next to an elementary school,” Agan concluded.
Shortly after this, Border read a letter (see sidebar for the text) from Jimmy Flythe, Duke Energy’s regional director of government and community relations, which eliminated the possibility of the Hilliard Avenue site taking priority and delaying the need for the Hill Street site several years.
Next came the community-response portion of the forum. People lined up to have their say at a microphone, with each allotted one minute to speak, although almost all the commenters went over their allotment. One man told a story of a friend who was electrocuted while flying a kite. A woman told of a nephew she lost to leukemia.
Others took the topic in their own individual directions, with their own specialized suggestions. One commenter cautioned against focusing too heavily on the potential dangers of electromagnetic radiation, which are uncertain, and instead focusing on the undeniable hazards, such as explosions and electrocution.
Another commenter recognized the need for a substation, but suggested it be built in a walled enclosure. And another claimed the community’s focus was too small, that the substation was only one part of a larger tapestry of unsustainable electric-power models.
After the community had had their turn, it was time for the officials to speak. Mayor Manheimer went first.
“I think it’s really important that you came here tonight,” she said, “that you have expressed your opinion, that you’ve shown that we’re really a community that cares, and when push comes to shove, we’re very good at getting organized quickly.”
Asheville hasn’t had a substation built since the 1970s, she said, while the Unified Development Ordinance, the code that addresses such things, was not written until long after, in the 1990s.
She also commented on the prospect of enacting a moratorium on constructing new substations.
“I don’t know that it would make a lot of sense to do it,” Manheimer said, “because we have directed staff to begin preparing an … ordinance for requirements regarding substations.”
But she said this process will hopefully be completed by the close of the summer, before any kind of building permits would come from Duke Energy.
Then Sen. Van Duyn spoke.
“Placing the substation next to a school is not an option,” Van Duyn said, “but to do that, I’m going to continue to need to have you all engaged.”
She explained that with the state legislature pushing deregulation and attacking solar power, civic spirit is all the more necessary to keep the community’s representatives aware of the nature and strength of that community’s beliefs.
“This is exactly how it’s supposed to work,” she told the crowd. “People coming together to let us know what’s important to you. I’m very, very grateful.”
Next up was Buncombe County Chairman Gantt, who advised the audience to stick to the facts and to not allow Duke Energy to divide their interests against each other.
“Try to have once voice, be unified, be reasonable,” Gantt said. “Nobody wants this thing. If you were putting something next to Duke [Energy’s] school, they’d have the same reaction, they’d have the same crowd.”
There then followed a question-and-answer period. The four parents sitting across from the officials took turns lobbing inquiries across the stage, mostly at Manheimer, most of which she said would be better addressed to Duke Energy than to the city of Asheville.
“We’re not technically involved in Duke’s planning of their infrastructure,” Manheimer explained. “Duke doesn’t have to come to us and say, ‘Do you approve or disapprove of this substation going in first or that substation going in first?’
“But what we can do is have regulations in place, so that when they move forward, we have requirements regarding screening and fencing and buffering of any site.”
Manheimer continued to make it clear in her answers that Duke Energy operates independently, is not beholden to the city, and that the state’s Utilities Commission, too, is outside the domain of local government.
Van Duyn reiterated her wish for the community to remain involved and make their voices heard, saying this component is essential to her success in advocating for these issues.
Angie Everett, the other co-president of the Parent Teacher Organization, brought the forum to a close with an upbeat, “How about that, ya’ll?” After which, she requested the audience move their chairs to the side walls and lean them in color-coded groupings before leaving.