Fayetteville Observer Oct. 12, 2007

Owners say power line despoiled land

By Nomee Landis
Staff writer

WEST END - When it comes to land conservation - and how it can be
accomplished - Jesse Wimberley stands out as an example in Moore County.

Hundreds of people, from schoolchildren to other landowners, visit his
farm each year to learn about conservation. His practices are touted in
a booklet that local conservation organizations hand out.

"My farm is one of the most observed sites in the Sandhills," Wimberley
said. "Everything you can be involved in to get the word out about the
importance of preservation is being done on this site."

So when Progress Energy said last year that it was looking for a route
for a new 230-kilovolt electricity transmission line between Rockingham,
in Richmond County, and West End, Wimberley thought he had good reasons
for the company to avoid his 56 acres, 34 of which are under a
conservation easement.

Wimberley thought wrong.

The company's preferred route begins at a power substation in
Rockingham, cuts through the Sandhills Game Land, then follows an
existing transmission line for several miles. Near Foxfire, it turns
north and slices out across land owned by Wimberley and his extended
family and neighbors.

Earlier this year, they all received letters that told them the 34-mile
line would bisect their land and that workers would soon begin surveying
the route.

In late August, contractors for Progress Energy arrived.

Doug and Jeanne Williams own 76 acres adjacent to Wimberley's property.
Doug Williams said he misunderstood what the survey work entailed.

"They told us they were going to do a preliminary survey of where the
line might go," Williams said. "They didn't tell me they were going to
be cutting an 8-foot swath through my plantation pines and down through
the swamp."

The Moore County landowners, who live near Hoffman Road, say the manner
in which Progress Energy contractors plowed through their land reflects
poorly on the company, and they're fighting mad about it.

The surveyors came in with a machine that cut the underbrush and took
out small trees in its path, the landowners said. They used a chain saw
to cut down several old-growth trees along the route.

They cut through Wimberley's property. Through the Williamses' land.
Through Mike Wilson's land. And through Johnny Pigg's homestead, too.

Pigg owns 15 acres. He is a plumber who took nine months off work to
build his house about 10 years ago. He built the house and a shop on one
side of the property so he could use his remaining acreage for deer
hunting. The transmission line would take out much of his forest because
of clearance requirements.

"I don't have but 15 acres, so when they take out a 100-foot swath, that
is a lot," Pigg said. "That is about a third of my land. I've sunk a lot
of my sweat and blood into this place out here. Now they are going to
come out here and tell me what they're going to do with my land."

Wimberley, an environmental consultant, timber farmer and carpenter,
said at least one 150-year-old tree on his property was cut down. An
even older tree on his neighbor's land was felled. He called that
unacceptable.

In one spot on Wimberley's property, the equipment got stuck in a
wetland. Workers gouged big ruts in the creek bed and a hillside trying
to free the machine.

That damage occurred on land that is under a conservation easement. The
easement was established through the state Ecosystem Enhancement
Program, which mitigates damage to natural areas during road
construction by preserving similar areas.

An easement prevents a piece of land from ever being developed.

Mike Hughes, a spokesman for Progress Energy, said the contractors
typically go on foot with handheld equipment, such as a chain saw, when
they survey.

Hughes said the company regrets that its workers damaged a protected
area. He said that was a mistake and the company will assume
responsibility for restoring it.

A transmission line of this size requires clearing an easement 100 feet
wide, Hughes said.

Hughes said Progress Energy plans 10 to 15 years in advance for future
energy demands. Moore County is a quickly developing area, he added, and
the utility needs the new line to ensure it can meet expected growth
with reliable service.

Hughes said whenever possible the company tries to locate new lines in
existing rights of way, whether they are owned by power companies or the
state Department of Transportation.

Wimberley and his neighbors want the new transmission line route shifted
so that it remains in the existing right of way. The route follows it
for miles, they say, so why not align it all the way?

Utility companies have the power of eminent domain, which means they may
purchase a right of way on someone's property to install a line that is
for the common good.

Progress Energy negotiates a fair price that compensates landowners for
their loss of land, Hughes said. In most cases, an agreement is reached
with landowners without conflict.

If the company and the landowners are unable to agree, the law provides
for an arbitration of sorts through condemnation proceedings, Hughes
said. That can be an expensive process for both landowners and the
company, he said.

The N.C. Utilities Commission evaluates the routes that utility
companies select for transmission lines, Hughes said.

Wimberley said he and Wilson are involved in an effort to implement
sustainable community planning in part of Moore County. He said he would
like to see Progress Energy get involved in that and become a
responsible community partner.

Wimberley has petitioned Progress Energy to have the transmission line
shifted away from his land.

The company is considering shifting the route to another site on
Wimberley's farm or moving it to an adjoining property.

Staff writer Nomee Landis can be reached at landisn@fayobserver.com or
486-3523.