Sparks fly: city struggles to locate, regulate new electrical substations

TURNED ON: Duke Energy’s downtown distribution substation, located behind the U.S. Cellular Center on Rankin Avenue, was built in the mid-1960s. Photo by Virginia Daffron

The year was 1975. Gerald Ford was president. Harvard dropout Bill Gates founded the software company that would become Microsoft Corp. NBC aired the first episode of Saturday Night Live. And in Asheville, Carolina Power & Light built an electrical substation on Bingham Road in the Emma community.

In the 40 years since then, electrical demand in the region has more than tripled, says Tim Pettit, a spokesperson for Duke Energy Progress, CP&L’s successor. Yet no more substations have been built close to downtown — and over the next decade, power consumption is expected to grow by an additional 15 percent.

To keep up, Duke has launched its Western Carolinas modernization and expansion project. The centerpiece is replacing the coal-fired generating plant at Lake Julian with a natural gas-powered facility by 2020, but upgrades to the utility’s distribution infrastructure are also planned, including three new substations in the next 10 years.

To that end, Duke has acquired four downtown properties as possible substation sites. Since 2014, the company has spent $15.8 million on those purchases, according to Buncombe County property records. But with no city ordinance to regulate substation design and screening, Asheville is racing to approve new rules before the utility applies for a building permit. Meanwhile, people living and working close to the four parcels argue that building substations on them would pose health and safety risks, create hot spots for crime and littering, mar the aesthetics of rapidly developing areas and impair quality of life.

Duke has said it plans to move forward first with a 1.76-acre site at 226 Hilliard Ave.

Last year, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved a proposed substation ordinance on a 5-1 vote; a public hearing is scheduled for City Council’s Aug. 9 meeting.

Editor’s note: On Aug. 5, the City Clerk released the agenda for City Council’s Aug. 9 meeting. The public hearing on the revision to the zoning code that would address substation screening requirements has been rescheduled to the Sept. 6 meeting of Council.

Between the cracks

At one time, Asheville’s zoning code did address substations, notes Shannon Tuch of the city’s Planning and Urban Design Department. But as zoning classifications shifted and the city adopted a unified development ordinance in 1997, the substation rules got lost in the shuffle. The UDO’s authors, says Tuch, may have overlooked substations simply because “They come along so infrequently.”

And as she began drafting the amendment to Chapter 7 of Asheville’s zoning code, Tuch found that “What we are allowed to regulate is very limited when it comes to utilities. We can’t adopt any standard that would make it impossible to build or that would be so expensive that it could result in rate increases.”

According to Mayor Esther Manheimer, who is an attorney, the one major court decision that’s pertinent “is this coastal community that tried to get the power company to move their power line from one side of the street to the other, and they lost.” In 2009, Tuch explains, the town of Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks tried to require its utility provider to relocate the proposed line to preserve ocean views. The Utilities Commission ruled that the town didn’t have the authority to specify the line’s location; the town took its case to the state Court of Appeals and lost again.

Setbacks and buffers

In districts zoned for low-intensity uses — like residential neighborhoods — Asheville’s proposed ordinance would require at least a 100-foot setback from residential property lines and a 20-foot setback from all other property lines. Duke would be required to build an 8-foot wall or “other approved screening feature” around the facility and create a 50-foot-wide planted buffer area between the wall and residential areas.

The rules proposed for denser commercial districts are more lenient. The minimum setback from any residential parcels would be 20 feet, and 10 feet from other kinds of property. In the case of the former Hayes & Lunsford property at 226 Hilliard Ave., the 10-foot setback would apply to both the frontage on Hilliard and Asheland avenues and to the site’s western boundary, which adjoins an office building. A 20-foot setback would be mandated on the southern side, parts of which border a residential neighborhood accessed by South Grove Street.

An 8-foot wall or planted screen would be required, and if the utility opted for plantings, they would have to be at least 75 percent opaque year round and achieve that density within three years of planting. To secure the substation, says Tuch, Duke typically installs a chain-link fence inside the planted buffer zone.

In my backyard

Mike Wasmer lives between Asheland and South French Broad. His single-story, ranch-style house is one of many that would be within sight and hearing of a Hilliard Avenue substation. Wasmer, who moved to the neighborhood about a year ago, says he’s seen a lot of improvement during that time. Crime is down, and neighbors are excited about the city’s recent and planned investments in South Slope and the River Arts District. Allowing Duke Energy to site a substation along a major corridor between downtown and the River District, he maintains, just doesn’t make sense.

“You’re building all these breweries and other attractions, bringing tourists through here, and you put an eyesore like this on a prominent corner? It’s crazy.” Wasmer says he and his neighbors are also worried about noise, light pollution and potential negative health effects.

WATT COULD GO WRONG? 226 Hilliard Ave., the former home of Hayes & Lunsford Electrical Contractors, sits at the intersection of Hilliard and Asheland avenues, across the street from the Hot Spot gas station and convenience store. Photo by Virginia Daffron
WATT COULD GO WRONG? 226 Hilliard Ave., the former home of Hayes & Lunsford Electrical Contractors, sits at the intersection of Hilliard and Asheland avenues, across the street from the Hot Spot gas station and convenience store. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Meanwhile, Bob Gelder, who owns a commercial property at 230 Hilliard, has written to Council members and city staff urging them to consider the security and maintenance challenges he believes the new substation would pose. The planted buffer zones, he argues, would provide additional cover for the kind of criminal activity that has long plagued the area. In the past year alone, 47 significant criminal acts have been reported within a two-block radius of the site, including larceny, robbery, burglary, vandalism and aggravated assault, public records show.

“Who will police this area?” asks Gelder. “On the western and southern sides of the property, there’s no way to patrol it except on foot.”

According to Tuch, Asheville can’t require a property owner to provide private security. “As a city, we have a responsibility to do regular policing,” she explains, “and I think that area gets a lot of attention from the APD.”

On July 25, about 35 residents of the South French Broad neighborhood turned out for a community meeting, peppering Jason Walls, Duke Energy’s community liaison in Asheville, with questions about the proposed substation. Walls said he couldn’t comment on specifics or make “blanket commitments” since the facility hasn’t even been designed yet. But as one resident put it, succinctly summing up the general mood of the crowd, “We want you to find an alternate location.”

AMPED UP: Jason Walls of Duke Energy fields questions from South French Broad residents about the substation proposed for their neighborhood. Photo by Virginia Daffron
AMPED UP: Jason Walls of Duke Energy fields questions from South French Broad residents about the substation proposed for their neighborhood. Photo by Virginia Daffron

School zone

Duke’s three other potential downtown substation sites are:

  • Hill and Gudger streets (near Isaac Dickson Elementary School in Montford) — 16.9 acres
  • 319 Biltmore Ave. (the former Matthews Ford property) — 4.13 acres
  • 131 McDowell St. — 2.25 acres

The Hill Street property, which wraps around a portion of the school grounds, was the focus of a fierce battle last year. Parents of Isaac Dickson students and other community members lobbied against siting a substation there. Responding to concerns about electromagnetic radiation’s potential health effects on children, the risk of fire and the apparent mismatch between the new “green” elementary school and an industrial use right next door, the mayor and other City Council members persuaded Duke to hold off on developing the site, at least for now.

A widely cited 2010 World Health Organization report states, “Scientific evidence suggesting that everyday, chronic, low-intensity ELF magnetic field exposure poses a possible health risk is based on epidemiological studies demonstrating a consistent pattern of an increased risk of childhood leukemia.” But there are “uncertainties in the hazard assessment,” the study notes, and laboratory evidence “fails to support a relationship between low-level ELF magnetic field exposure and changes in biological function or disease status.” Nonetheless, the report continues, “ELF magnetic fields remain classified as possibly carcinogenic.”

According to Walls, however, “Actual measurement data shows that magnetic fields from the equipment in a substation, measured at the fence, are generally negligible.”

Tuch says some of those who fought against the Hill Street substation, including the Isaac Dickson Parent Teacher Organization, want the new city ordinance to require a 500-foot buffer between substations and any public school property. But though City Council is free to consider that change at its Aug. 9 meeting, she explains, it’s not included in the proposed draft, and any such substantial change would mean P&Z would have to review the ordinance again before Council could consider it.

The mayor, meanwhile, says a 500-foot exclusion zone would probably invite a legal challenge that the city would almost certainly lose.

Let’s make a deal

The former Matthews Ford property, which sits between Mission Hospital and the Lee Walker Heights public housing complex on Biltmore Avenue, also appears to have been the subject of closed-door negotiations between the city and Duke Energy. The utility bought the property on Aug. 21, 2014, for use as a substation site.

Duke’s plans, however, didn’t fit well with the city’s vision for revitalizing the 98-unit, 1950s-era Lee Walker Heights. On April 26, City Council allocated $4.2 million for the 212-unit development, a mix of deeply affordable and market-rate housing. The money would be earmarked for needed infrastructure, such as roads, sewer lines, water lines and other site work. But the city’s commitment is contingent on the project’s receiving federal tax credits for low-income housing. If the credits are approved, construction of the $33 million project could begin next April, David Nash, the Housing Authority’s chief operating officer, said last spring.

At that same meeting, Council voted to help fund the project; it also approved a memorandum of understanding that allows the city to buy Duke’s Biltmore Avenue property for $5.3 million — the price the utility paid for it — any time in the next eight years. The agreement also grants the city the right to build a road into Lee Walker Heights from Biltmore Avenue, providing a second access point. The Duke property could be developed to add a commercial component to the new neighborhood, as well as additional affordable and market-rate housing.

In exchange for the purchase option, Asheville agreed to help the company obtain utility easements within the city limits. More significantly, though, Duke can decline to sell the Biltmore Avenue property to Asheville if it’s not “reasonably satisfied” with whatever substation regulations may be in place when the city wants to exercise the option.

Tuch says she wasn’t involved in those negotiations. According to Manheimer, however, “We needed to get that piece of property because it’s necessary for Lee Walker, so the project can be successful. … You can’t have a tax-credit-financed redevelopment within 500 feet of a substation because of the degradation of the neighborhood. [Duke] said we will enter into an agreement with you giving you first right of refusal, but we need to be satisfied with your buffering ordinance.”

The deal, says the mayor, was just one part of larger, more complex negotiations. “There are so many moving parts. Duke is giving us easements for greenways, and they need easements from us. We’ve got a lot of stuff in process, so there’s a lot of give and take. … Basically, it’s a chess game.”

Nonetheless, she remains confident that at the end of the day, “We are going to get there.”

Others aren’t so sure, however. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by Xpress yielded documents including a Jan. 16, 2016, email from Walls to Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball, other city staff, Housing Authority representatives and Mission Health executives. The email was confirming a meeting that day at Duke’s Asheville offices to discuss the Biltmore Avenue property.

Gelder believes City Council “leveraged the rest of the city to make its redevelopment project at Lee Walker Heights happen.” On the other hand, the city may simply have determined that since it has so little ability to regulate substations anyway, the Biltmore Avenue deal would have little impact on the proposed ordinance but would include valuable concessions for the redevelopment project.

Looking for options

The basic technology used in air-cooled substations hasn’t changed much over the past 100 years or so. But some community members, including Wasmer, have urged Duke Energy to consider an alternative approach for its downtown Asheville sites. This design fills the space between the switching components with an inert gas to prevent electrical arcing. As a result, gas-insulated stations can be much smaller, with about one-tenth the footprint of a conventional facility.

Company spokesperson Pettit, however, cautions that Duke Energy Progress, the entity serving this area, has never used gas-insulated substations. Typically, he explains, the technology “is used at sites in densely populated urban areas with very high property costs that justify a small footprint and the tenfold [increase in] installation cost.”

For now, says Pettit, Duke plans to move forward with the Hilliard Avenue site. And though the timelines for the other properties are less certain, Duke will probably move to develop the McDowell Street site next. Plans for the Hill Street substation are “on hold,” Pettit reports. “We have reviewed sites provided by parents and have not yet identified a suitable alternative. Since we don’t anticipate building on this site for several years, we continue to look for other potential locations.”

According to Pettit, the utility is open to discussing creative ways to screen and otherwise mitigate the impact of these facilities. “We have substations that range from brick enclosures to stations that are highlighted by artistic lighting. Projects and sites are all unique and different, but we’re always interested in sitting down with cities and partnering with them around design, location and various ways of paying for enhancements,” he said in an email to Xpress.

Walls expressed a similar sentiment in a letter to City Council last year: “We also understand that these are large, industrial-looking facilities that, although critical, can stand out in a city’s landscape. We have been and will continue to work closely with city leaders to develop these locations in a way that fits within the city’s larger master plan and minimizes visual impacts as much as possible.”

For her part, Tuch acknowledges that no one wants a substation located near their home, business or school. “I don’t know any substation that isn’t an eyesore. It’s one of those necessary utility needs,” she observes. “We don’t want a substation, but we do want electricity. We want growth, we want affordable utility rates — we want all of those things.”

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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10 thoughts on “Sparks fly: city struggles to locate, regulate new electrical substations

  1. hauntedheadnc

    I must be the odd one out, because I love the industrial look of a substation and it wouldn’t upset me in the least to see one out my window. Then again, I also think the power plant is a lovely thing to behold, especially at night.

  2. Earleen Evans

    I am a business at 131 McDowell St, Asheville Permanent Makeup Clinic…Not looking forward to having to relocate my business if this happens and can’t imagine having a substation across the street from the new multi million dollar cancer center…

    • Helen

      How much time have you been given to relocate. Just curious about the timeline, which appears to be a secret at this poin.

      • Earleen Evans

        No time frame, May be a year, could be 2 or 3, would that give us an answer. Most businesses did not have our leases renewed. The ones who have leases are no more than 12-18 months if they honor them…

  3. MMH

    On April 26, City Council STOLE $4.2 MILLION from Asheville TAXPAYERS to GIVE to the already bloated federally funded
    Housing Authority of Asheville, the biggest bloated BLIGHT on the city! Leave it to the council EVIL democrackkk thieves to
    busy themselves with recreating an even bigger new additional future ghetto for the inner city…SHAMEFUL. City Council members are elected CRIMINALS.

    • jan kubiniec

      O wow. Something criminal that went on and it wasn’t on Beaucatcher Mt. The substation needs to go at Matthews Ford on Biltmore Av. for two reasons. One, anything would be an improvement next to the huge hospital complex. Two, they need the power to go directly to whatever development is going on Beaucatcher Mt. that everyone lies about. it can’t all be about me, a non existent 103-year-old house and drug gangs…bring on the power! But, no one will ever confirm or deny anything.

  4. HRH

    The TAXPAYERS of Asheville should be screaming to stop ANY future federal housing in this overrun city! More public housing here per capita already than any other ‘city’ in NC !!! HOW did it become that way ??? Democrackkk SEGREGATION of the poor.

  5. Helen

    Good article but there are some statements that should be debated and clarified. If the Western Carolinas Modernization and Expansion project was truly a “modernization” project then Duke would not be trying to cram 100 year old air cooled ugly substations into the downtown urban core. They would use more modern technology and design that encased the substation in a building with a small footprint, using Gas Insulated Substation technology.

    Secondly, there is no data to back up the statement by company spokesman Pettit that a gas- insulated substation has a tenfold increase in costs. Readily available literature states that the cost may be twice as much but property savings somewhat offset that cost. Duke has $16 million invested in property around Asheville that they could resell and use the difference to put in a modern substation. The Hilliard site is “a densely populated urban area”.

    The city has removed two other sites that are more suitable to installing the old “not modern” air cooled substation from discussion. Both the Mathews Ford Site and the Isaac Dickson site would have allowed a 100 foot setback from the substation and even 50 feet of vegetation. One of the cities justification per Mayor Mannheimer is “that you can’t have a tax-credit-financed redevelopment within 500 feet of a substation.” This is not true! The source of funding for the tax credit for the Lee Walker heights redevelopment is “LIHTC”. The 2016 Qualified Application Plan for LIHTC states that you get “6” points if not within 500 feet of a substation, but there is no prohibition. This information is easy to access and hopefully the city will drop that justification.

    If you read the Lee Walker development plan it does not require the Mathews Ford Site for anything other than Phase 2. Phase 2 has nothing to do with the redevelopment of Lee Walker. Phase 2 promises to bring small retail, some market rate housing, some subsidized housing, a parking garage, etc. The city does not need more retail along Biltmore avenue. Phase 2 is all about providing a developer with prime real estate to build more commercial space along a primarily medical corridor.

    The city should allow Duke to build the substation at the Mathews Ford site if Duke insists on ‘not modern” air cooled substations. It will not create a public eyesore that is seen constantly by residents and tourists!

    • Virginia Daffron

      Helen, thanks for weighing in. I had hoped to include a third-party assessment of the costs of different substation construction methods/technologies but I wasn’t able to obtain a source by my deadline. I tried to talk with some regional large electrical engineering and construction firms, but they weren’t willing to comment. Without specifications for the substation, it will be difficult to quantify the costs associated with building an open-air concept versus another technology, but I agree that Duke’s assessment should be subjected to analysis.

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