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A conservationist’s fight against an electric cooperative that petitioned to condemn part of his land could hinge upon an endangered species of bat.
On March 7, attorneys representing Tim Sweeney, the owner of the Box Creek Wilderness area, sent a letter to the Rutherford Electric Membership Corporation (REMC) notifying it that its planned power line through the area, which straddles the border of Rutherford and McDowell counties, could violate the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.
REMC filed the petition of eminent domain with the Rutherford County Superior Court in February, requesting to condemn a 2.5-mile-long, 100-foot-wide right-of-way for a power line through the 5,800-acre property owned by Sweeney, a conservationist and co-founder of Cary-based Epic Games, a video game developing firm behind the popular “Gears of War” series. (See some of the documents related to this story below.)
In June, Sweeney signed a registry agreement with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to formalize Sweeney’s commitment to manage the Box Creek Wilderness to protect its rare species and enhance its natural beauty. According to a media release from the NCDENR, Sweeney’s agreement with the state does not involve any exchange of funding or property interests. The release said, “Instead, it recognizes Box Creek Wilderness as one of North Carolina’s registered Natural Heritage Areas and creates a mutual understanding between Sweeney and the state to protect the property’s natural diversity.”
According to Box Creek Wilderness property manager Unique Places LLC, the area is host to 18 globally rare plant communities, and with more than 100 rare and priority conservation species of plants and animals, it is ranked as the 24th most significant of the state’s roughly 2,400 Significant Natural Heritage Areas by the NCDENR.
The 100,000-volt, single-pole transmission line would cradle four wires, connecting REMC’s Thermal City and Dysartsville substations through the heart of the Box Creek area. The line would bring a more reliable source of electricity to 1,900 families as well as businesses in the Dysartsville community, REMC Vice President Dirk Burleson said.
However, Unique Places CEO Jeff Fisher said a specialist had recorded a federally endangered Indiana bat on the property.
“We have an expert that’s heard them, so it’s a very big deal,” Fisher said.
The letter from Sweeney’s attorneys also stated that potential migration routes and breeding sites for bog turtles, a federally threatened species, had been found around Box Creek. Courts could issue an injunction on the power line if there is reasonable likelihood that its construction could harm either species, according to federal law. Now, Fisher said that ecologists were trying to net one of the bats.
Sweeney’s lawyers argue that, without an “incidental take permit,” REMC would violate the Endangered Species Act by constructing the power line.
The letter also stated that REMC must conduct a review of the proposed line’s environmental impact under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Because the Box Creek area contains tributaries to the Second Broad River watershed, a source of drinking water for Forest City, Bostic and Ellenboro, the letter argued that REMC must also obtain special water quality certifications under the Clean Water Act.
REMC: The only viable route for a new power line
The letter from Sweeney’s lawyers is the latest part of what Fisher called a “multi-tiered response” to REMC’s proposed power line through the Box Creek Wilderness, an ecologically diverse area located between the South Mountains and the Blue Ridge escarpment.
But it’s part of the only viable route for the new power line, according to REMC.
“We just feel that it’s critical that we provide electric service to the people of the Dysartsville community,” REMC Vice President Dirk Burleson said. “We feel like they deserve reliable electric service.”
However, Fisher said the power line undermines the value of an undeniably significant and rare ecological area.
Since February, Sweeney and his supporters have mounted a public relations campaign to denounce the power line, including an online petition with more than 700 signatures.
Sweeney also hired McGavran Engineering, an electrical engineering consulting firm, to look for alternate routes for the power line. Fisher said the firm had found a number of different routes for the line that circumvent the area.
“I would say this is, in many ways, a David and Goliath story where you have a huge EMC that has a lot of power and doesn’t value places like natural heritage areas,” Fisher said. “And they’re not required to.”
But REMC has stated that it conducted its own research and was supported by an independent firm it its findings that the Box Creek route was the only viable route for the line.
Dean Carpenter, the Dallas-based president of the REMC Board of Directors, said he was happy with his board’s decision on the proposed route.
“The board followed the management’s recommendation,” he said.
Burleson said that the next step in the process would be scheduling a hearing with the Rutherford County Clerk of Superior Court. Pat Logan with the Rutherford County Clerk of Superior Court said hearings on the matter would be held at 9 a.m. on April 30, May 6 and May 7 in the Rutherford County Annex Building.
Regarding the letter, Burleson that REMC was reviewing all of the information presented.
“I think, ultimately, going through the condemnation process, all of those areas will be discussed,” he said.
In the meantime, Fisher said he would continue to fight the proposal and garner public support.
“We’re going to bring attention to the public and bring attention to the courts, and that’s the best we can do,” he said.