The collision between a wealthy video game developer and the Rutherford County electric cooperative that’s condemning his land is headed to court.
Video game developer Tim Sweeney estimates that his 5,000 acres in and around the Box Creek Wilderness about 70 miles northwest of Charlotte would lose $10.6 million in value if the co-op runs a power line through it.
A court-appointed panel, though, said Sweeney should be paid less than $72,000 for Rutherford Electric Membership Corp.’s condemnation of a 100-foot-wide corridor across his land.
The trial beginning Aug. 12 will focus on whether Rutherford needs to build the 12-mile line and has options other than running it across Sweeney’s property. Compensation would be the subject of a separate trial.
Sweeney, who said he learned of the power-line project a month after he bought the first parcel of his acreage in late 2011, argues that the line would split thousands of acres of unbroken forest. The 3,300-acre Box Creek Wilderness at its core harbors some of the rarest plant communities recognized by the state.
Sweeney’s experts say the right of way will usher nonnative invasive plants into the wilderness.
“I spent, gosh, over $10 million just putting together this contiguous 6,000 acres in the Box Creek area,” he said last week. “I’ll spend as much as it takes and exhaust all legal remedies in order to protect it.”
A soft-spoken hiker outside the high-voltage world of video games, Sweeney is well able to defend his land.
After buying up distressed properties from Chatham County to the Roan Mountain highlands in recent years, Sweeney estimates he owns 25,000 acres in North Carolina – an area nearly the size of his home base of Cary.
He continues to snap up land in the area. Rutherford has filed a second condemnation petition to run the power line through 595 acres Sweeney bought in McDowell County.
Sweeney, 42, is founder and CEO of Epic Games, a pioneering games developer based in Cary. A Chinese investment company bought 48 percent of Epic’s outstanding shares last year for $330 million.
Rutherford Electric, meanwhile, relies on a North Carolina law that allows land to be condemned for electric power lines. The cooperative says the line is needed to prevent future brownouts to 1,900 customers in the rural Dysartsville community.
Sweeney’s lawyers counter that demand for electricity in Dysartsville actually peaked in 2009 and has dropped since then. Rutherford, they say, has a record of reliable service.
Crossing Sweeney’s land by largely following old logging roads, Rutherford Vice President Dirk Burleson said, was the most feasible route to connect two substations. A route Sweeney has proposed, along a rail line west of the property, he said, is unworkable because it’s too narrow in places.
Burleson won’t reveal cost estimates to build the line on either route, saying the figures are expected to be part of the trial evidence.
He said Rutherford is still willing to talk about a “workable” third route on the western edge of Sweeney’s property.
“Certainly Rutherford would love to see this situation resolved, some compromise, so we’re willing to discuss it with them,” he said.
Sweeney’s lawyers have argued that the cooperative should do an environmental-impact study required for federally authorized projects. They say the endangered Indiana bat may lurk in the area, but have not produced one.
“We have had an environmental consultant for two years,” said Charlotte lawyer Edward Poe, who represents Rutherford. “They have taken his deposition, they have his report, and he did not find any federally-listed endangered or threatened species along the route and the access easement.”
Future plans for land
Sweeney said he will never develop his land, apart from possibly building a cabin overlooking the 12,000 acres he’s amassed near Box Creek.
He recently granted a purchase option to the Morganton-based Foothills Conservancy for 2,100 acres he bought near South Mountains State Park. He’s poured money into restoring his land, and conservation advocates say his intentions appear good.
But conservationists note Sweeney hasn’t legally protected his land.
Sweeney said that will happen later, perhaps when he dies. In the meanwhile, he said he intends to preserve it in an “economically prudent” way.
His vision is to create a mitigation bank, protecting sensitive watersheds on his property to generate “credits” that can be sold to offset environmental damage from development elsewhere. He said he would use the revenue to buy more land.
“I think I can get a lot more bang for the buck by treating this as a long-term effort,” Sweeney said. “Right now there is very little in the way of state or private conservation funding, so I would essentially be giving away the value of it in exchange for protecting it.
“But by doing the mitigation banking, we think just with the Box Creek tract that’s potentially a $5 million to $10 million mitigation project. If we can do that and preserve part of the tract, that’s another $5 million to $10 million that can be used to buy land and put more land under conservation over time.”
Sweeney said he first hiked the Box Creek tract in early 2009 and was struck by the subtle allure of its ecosystems.
“I’ve done a lot of hiking in North Carolina and there were lots of unique places there that I had not seen elsewhere,” he said. “The hilltops were just filled with this hill cane, a native North American species of the bamboo family. It’s really amazing – you see dozens of acres of it.
“And then going down the hill there were huge rock outcrops that were full of amazing plants I hadn’t seen elsewhere. We later realized that the geology and physical conditions are just very rare.”
That’s what the power line would cleave in two, he said.
Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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