FLETCHER — Mills River resident Carol Bencivenga summed up a sentiment voiced by many of the nearly 500 people who attended Duke Energy’s July 14 information session at the WNC Agricultural Center about routing about 45 miles of new transmission lines from Campobello, S.C., to Asheville, N.C., as part of a modernization plan: “We heard it’s coming right in front of our property, and I’m not happy about it.”
Bencivenga was one of 3,700 property owners who recently received letters from Duke, which sought both to inform those whose land could be traversed by the lines and to invite the public to comment on the plan by Aug. 14.
“There are 40 possible segments to the routes, and 40 to 50 miles of transmission lines [being planned]. It’s important for us to get input [now] rather than run into problems later,” said Tom Williams, Duke spokesperson.
The July 14 session is the first of three the company will hold in the region before deciding later this fall where to build the new lines, he explained. Construction could begin as soon as November 2017 if both the North Carolina Utilities Commission and South Carolina’s Public Service Commission approve Duke’s final plans, Williams said.
Information from the energy company, which is the largest electric power holding company in the United States, says it plans on investing $320 million in the project, which also includes “related upgrades to transmission and substation facilities.”
For the information meeting, meanwhile, at least 30 Duke employees — easily identifiable in their blue polo shirts — staffed information tables, handed out frequently-asked-questions fliers and used computers to help property owners zoom in on the many possible routes in relation to their homes, lands and businesses.
“This gives [the public] more opportunities to meet the experts and ask about their specific concerns,” Williams said.
Attendees pored over the poster-size maps, questioned Duke staff and waited in line to look at interactive GIS programs. On computers or paper maps, the proposed routes stood out, highlighted in yellow bands that zigged and zagged across the landscape of rivers, towns, forests, trout streams, historic sites and cities. People snapped photos with their smartphones, conferred with their neighbors and filled out the comment forms laid out on several tables in the middle of the room.
Many, like Bencivenga and her husband, remained skeptical that Duke would listen to property owners.
“We all got a letter,” she said, speaking for the friends and neighbors who had accompanied her to the meeting. One possible route would “go through the middle of our neighbor’s hay field,” Bencivenga said. Lower property values and losing land topped her concerns, she added.
The Bencivengas’ longtime friend, Steve Anderson, of Fletcher, also received a letter because his home lies within 1,000 feet of a possible route for the new lines. Noting that the structures could be almost 200 feet tall in some cases, he asked, “Why can’t they go underground? Or use existing [lines and] rights of way?”
One flier addressed that question, citing significantly higher costs, “extensive digging,” “mountainous terrain” and other issues.
“I’m concerned about the aesthetics, the property values, the possible effects of high-voltage lines on my property,” said LeighAnn Faires. She started visiting Western North Carolina as a child in the late 1960s, then moved here 15 years ago. Big transmission lines will “ruin the beautiful morning views,” she said.
Tony Lancelot, of Cliffs Valley in South Carolina, said that one possible route will cut through the middle of the 2,500-acre, 350-home community, where all other utilities are buried underground.
“It will cut a 150-foot-wide swath through the Cliffs,” he said.
Neighbor and Cliffs Valley board member Ellyce Brenner joined him in voicing concern about property values in the high-end development, located near Travelers Rest. “We’re all concerned, because it’s a very beautiful community, with trees and wildlife,” she said.
Most Cliffs Valley residents get power from the Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative, she said.
An elderly attendee said he was worried about Duke’s herbicide use on rights of way for transmission lines. A “vegetation management” flier and a Duke staffer addressed the issue, noting that the company will clear the land “approximately every four-to-eight years” and use an Integrated Vegetation Management program that includes “careful pruning, selective herbicidal application and tree felling.”
The Asheville-based nonprofit MountainTrue will be analyzing such environmental and human impacts, said Executive Director Julie Mayfield, who is also a candidate for Asheville City Council.
“We’re seeing these maps for the first time — just like everybody else,” she said.
Mayfield said she has already noticed that the maps don’t show lands that are protected by private conservation easements.
Further, Duke hasn’t adequately explained why it needs the new transmission lines, she said. In May, the company announced that it will close its Asheville coal-fired plant and build a new, higher-capacity facility powered by natural gas by 2020.
Duke also says the demand for electricity has doubled in and around Asheville in the past few decades and will grow 15 percent in its Carolinas service area in the coming years, Mayfield continued.
“Why do we need such a big plan? Are we overbuilding? Are we building to [be able] to export excess capacity?” she asked.
At a nearby table, meanwhile, a Duke employee told the residents gathered around him, “Keep in mind that we’re planning [decades] into the future.”
The modernization plan includes upgrading a natural-gas pipeline from the Kings Mountain, N.C., area into Asheville, closing the coal-ash ponds at Lake Julian and installing a solar farm.
The next North Carolina information session on the project is scheduled for 4-7 p.m., Thursday, July 23, at Blue Ridge Community College in Hendersonville.
For more information about Duke’s modernization plan, click here.
For more information about the transmission lines, click here, call 888-238-0373 or email WCTransmissionEnhancements@duke-energy.com.