Southern Pines Pilot, July 15, 2008

County Planner Looking Into Power Line Concerns

FLORENCE GILKESON: SENIOR WRITER

County Planning Director Joey Raczkowski plans to look into concerns that the Save Our Sandhills movement has expressed about Progress Energy's expansion efforts.

SOS supporters raised the issue during last Thursday's meeting of the Moore County Planning Board.

The board did not vote on a resolution presented by SOS, but Raczkowski said he would research the issue and make an effort to get in touch with Progress Energy officials.

"It's certainly very important to our county," said Nancy Roy Fiorillo, who chairs the Planning Board.

A spokesman for Progress Energy said in an interview Tuesday that the company has made every effort to work with property owners affected by the route and to mitigate the impact the transmission line would have on the Sandhills Gamelands.

"Progress Energy appreciates the concerns of our customers and landowners when we have projects running through their area and we understand their feelings," said Jeff Brooks, a company spokesman in the Raleigh office. "We work with them every way we can."

Brooks said the company "worked diligently with state and local governments to minimize the effect" the lines would have on local property and also worked closely with the Wildlife Commission. He said that by working together, Progress Energy and the commission had come to the conclusion that the route finally adopted was the only viable route for the lines.

In fact, Brooks said the route adopted goes about five miles out of its way to avoid environmental damage as much as possible on the gamelands. He said that, where possible, the company always tries to use existing right of way when enlarging or changing transmission line routes.

Save Our Sandhills is a grassroots organization that focuses on aspects of the Sandhills environment. The resolution was adopted in June. The letter to Raczkowski was signed by SOS steering committee members Joe McDonald, Robert Stolting and Ruth Stolting.

In introducing the SOS supporters, Fiorillo called attention to the destruction of valuable pine woods in part of Small Area A shortly after the Area A Steering Committee went to work on a land-use plan for that section of the county that includes West End, Seven Lakes, Eagle Springs and Jackson Springs. Fiorillo said the company's action created a great deal of sympathy for the owner whose property was heavily damaged. She is also a member of the Area A Committee.

Joe McDonald told the board that the power company should be required to submit an environmental impact statement before carrying out widespread expansion of power lines by acquiring private property through eminent domain proceedings. Other agencies with that power, such as the N.C. Department of Transportation, are required to submit environmental impact documents before proceeding with road construction.

'Looks Like Spaghetti'

Ruth Stolting, another member, told of difficulties encountered by SOS members when they tried to extract information from Progress Energy. She said PE officials cited the federal Patriot Act as the reason for their reluctance to reveal the information, apparently because power line routing and other information could be used by terrorists.

However, Stolting said some of the company's efforts predate passage of the Patriot Act.

Mike Wilson, owner of the land where trees were destroyed through eminent domain action, told of his struggles in dealing with Progress Energy. Wilson said he finally secured some relief once he gained an audience with company officials, and the result was that not all, just part, of his land was "ruined."

Wilson said that the historic and ecological value of the old-growth longleaf pines in the company's proposed path meant nothing to the company.

"But after you get their attention, you will get some cooperation," he said.

Wilson said a map used by the company in plotting its power lines was drawn by a company in Canada and "looks like spaghetti."

The eminent domain law under which PE operates has been in effect since the 1890s, and Wilson said legislative change would be required to secure any significant relief.

"The general statutes of North Carolina give them the right to run over you any way they want to," Wilson said.

'Vested Interest'

Jesse Wimberley, another property owner in that area, said that the county and the Planning Board have "vested interest in working with Progress Energy" to resolve the issue.

Planning Board member Kim VonCanon asked Wimberley for recommendations. He replied that the board should adopt the resolution and encourage cooperation and negotiation with Progress Energy.

Dave Kinney, a member of the Planning Board and chairman of the Area A Committee, said that the effort needs both grassroots work and legislative attention.

The resolution adopted by SOS calls attention to Progress Energy's Rockingham/West End route for a 230-kilovolt transmission line that "despoiled sensitive lands in September 2007, some of which were protected in a conservation easement by the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, which is a mitigation system funded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and carried out in coordination with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources."

The route, as described in the resolution, would "cut through the North Carolina Sandhills Gameland, which is public environmentally protected land for flora and fauna." It further tells of a proposed new Richmond County/Fort Bragg transmission line 60 to 65 miles in length with "a plethora of potential routes all going through private lands, and (that) will require the taking of private property."

Brooks said that Progress Energy held two open house events in 2006, one at the Senior Enrichment Center in Moore County, the other at Richmond Community College in Hamlet, to get feedback from the community about the proposed transmission lines. In addition, he said letters were sent to everyone who owned property along the route and others who might be affected by the route and invited them to the open house events. As a result, he said some changes were made in the route.

"We recognize that even with our best efforts, these lines will affect landowners and residents and wherever possible, we work with them," Brooks said.

The power company spokesman also said that right-of-way agents are available to discuss the issues with customers and landowners and that the company does pay compensation.

Progress Energy is still in the process of securing right of way for the route. Brooks said the plan calls for construction to begin on the Rockingham/West End route in 2009 and for the project to be complete in 2011.

'Withheld Information'

Because of a federal mandate imposing stiff fines for power outages caused by trees or vegetation, the company plans to cut 50,000 trees in North Carolina and South Carolina, according to the resolution. However, the resolution says the law passed by Congress in 2005 as a result of the 2003 blackout does not require that trees be removed, just that the vegetation along transmission lines be maintained to avoid such interference.

The resolution charges that PE "withholds information from property owners threatened with condemnation by Progress Energy's projects, even though fairness, justice and reason require the sharing of such information" and also that the company "has withheld a myriad of information from the public, even as it wields the power of eminent domain given to it by the public through their elected representatives."

It closes by calling on county, state and federal officials to urge such agencies as NCDENR, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission to require an environmental impact statement for the planned Rockingham/West End route. The resolution also proposes that PE upgrade existing lines, rather than create new ones, that it avoid conservation easement properties and, where possible, share rights of way with other utilities. It closes with a call for public notification of such plans.

Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at florence @thepilot.com.