UNION MILLS An unfolding conflict in the Rutherford County foothills pits the conservation of 5,800 acres of unbroken forest against a local electrical cooperative that wants to run a high-voltage power line through it.
Rutherford Electric Membership Corp. says the 12-mile transmission line would prevent brownouts in a rural community of 1,900 families.
Ecologists working for Tim Sweeney, the Cary video-game developer who owns the Box Creek Wilderness, say the line would run a 100-foot-wide dagger through the heart of some of the rarest plant and wildlife habitats in North Carolina.
Sweeney has the financial heft to buy more than 25,000 acres across the state and put conservation experts – and lawyers – to work restoring the properties to their natural states.
Rutherford EMC, which is based in Forest City and has 67,000 rural customers, is armed with an 1871 state law that allows it to condemn land for power lines.
“You’ve got kind of a David-and-Goliath battle going here, and I’m not sure which is which,” said Jeff Fisher of Durham-based Unique Places, Sweeney’s land manager.
After a year of fruitless negotiation, Rutherford Electric filed a condemnation petition with the county clerk of court on Feb. 15.
“We regret it, but we also feel strongly that people in rural Rutherford and McDowell counties – it could be a family, an elderly couple, a church, a fire department – need reliable service,” said Rutherford EMC Vice President Dirk Burleson. “It seems harsh to me to know that we could solve it easily.”
Last week, Sweeney’s lawyer sent letters warning that the property might harbor federally protected animals. He asked the co-op to stop the condemnation until federal agencies assess the line’s impacts or face a lawsuit.
Sweeney, the 42-year-old founder of Epic Games in Cary, bought the acreage in late 2011, just before Rutherford announced its power-line route.
He describes himself as a lifelong nature lover who goes hiking most weekends.
“My plan for all this is to enjoy it all my life, preserve it, and then pass it on when my time passes,” he said. “It was disappointing to have a plan to preserve this land and then have the power company plan to cut it in half.”
“I don’t relish it, but if I have to fight to save it, I will.”
Sweeney’s a hero to conservationists for continuing a long tradition of private landowners who value preservation. The real-estate bubble also meant he could buy land at fire-sale prices. Box Creek, former timberland, was in foreclosure from land developers when Sweeney bought it.
The Morganton-based Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, working with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, had already identified the tract as potential state gamelands. Speculators bought it instead.
Box Creek sprawls across low foothills of hardwoods and pine that are laced with old logging roads and timber rattlesnakes.
One of the tract’s attributes is its large size, free of the roads, buildings and parking lots that slice and dice many once-wild places.
Another is its location, helping link protected lands in the South Mountains, south of Morganton, and Hickory Nut Gorge 20 miles to the west. Such corridors are crucial for wildlife that needs room to roam.
“It’s a landscape that’s sort of a hidden gem in the western section of the Piedmont,” said Foothills Executive Director Susie Hamrick Jones. “It’s not an iconic place like Chimney Rock, where you can stand in one place and see forever. But because of its location, wilderness is, I think, a deserving term. It’s the kind of tract that could easily have been overlooked.”
Rare plants, animals
Box Creek ranks among the top 75 of the state’s 2,500 Significant Natural Heritage Areas, a designation of biological richness, for its 80 rare plant and animal species.
To restore the site, Sweeney’s crews are reintroducing fire, removing invasive species, treating hemlocks against the wooly adelgid and planting blight-resistant chestnut trees.
The westward view from one of its highest points, Cedar Knob, takes in the Blue Ridge Escarpment, where mountains meet Piedmont, and Mount Mitchell on the horizon.
“The power line would go right through the middle of this,” said Lloyd Raleigh, an Asheville ecosystems expert who has helped study the property. “What you’re looking at, all this, is rare habitat.”
Some of the rare plants have adapted to a type of rock, amphibolite, that breaks down into non-acidic soil. The slopes around the namesake creek grow plants such as hill cane, a newly described species.
Most of the tract’s rare species were found in rocky outcrops that dot the property, but it also holds a mash-up species from both the Blue Ridge and the Piedmont. Some, including crayfish and salamander species, are globally rare.
The state Natural Heritage listing doesn’t legally protect Box Creek. But federal endangered-species law might.
Last Thursday, a lawyer for Sweeney wrote Rutherford EMC to warn that the endangered Indiana bat and bog turtles, which are listed as threatened, are believed to live on the property.
The letter asked the cooperative to stop the condemnation until federal agencies have evaluated the environmental effects of the power line. Unless Rutherford complies, the letter said, Sweeney will file a federal lawsuit to stop work.
Six options considered
The electric cooperative’s engineers considered six alternative routes to connect two substations, Burleson said, but concluded that the power line had to go through 2 1/2 miles on the west side of Sweeney’s property. An engineering firm hired for an independent review confirmed that decision, he said.
“If you can imagine nearly 6,000 acres being directly between the two, you just can’t avoid going over a piece of that property,” he said.
The cooperative insists the power line will cause no environmental harm.
Sweeney’s experts predict “extensive, long term and irreparable” damage to the wilderness.
Invasive species are likely to follow the cut into the forest, they say, and bleed sediment into the clear streams. The damage could extend a quarter-mile on both sides of the right-of-way, they say.
Unique Places, a conservation consulting and land management firm working for Sweeney, calculates that Rutherford’s intended route would cost 75 percent more and do more ecological damage than using existing rights of way around the property.
Those routes won’t work, Burleson said. People live along Sweeney’s preferred right-of-way, he said, and there’s not enough space for a power line.
“All we’re asking to condemn is a 100-foot right-of-way that largely exists along logging roads,” he said. “It will impact less than 1 percent of the property. We used experts in the field, and they tell us there is no environmental concerns with this proposed transmission line.”
Condemnation proceedings are straightforward, at least in theory.
Once Sweeney responds to Rutherford’s petition, the Rutherford County clerk of court will hold a hearing. If she rules in favor of the cooperative, she would name three local real estate experts to recommend the price to be paid.
Either side can appeal the clerk’s decision to Superior Court. Then – if not before – it would become a legal fight.
Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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