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Pineville Town Council approves controversial substation near NC-SC line in tight vote

Charlotte Observer
In a special meeting that lasted less than five minutes, the Pineville Town Council narrowly approved a controversial plan for a new electric substation near a large subdivision Monday night.

The council voted 3-2 to back a city plan to buy about an acre at the intersection of Miller Road and Greenway Drive for the substation, and also approved city staff to negotiate for the land in question and, if necessary, condemn it. The property is owned by the family that runs Miller’s Flea Market on the land.

Town leaders have said the substation is critical to keeping up with demand for utilities in the growing Charlotte-area community and that the site in question was the most feasible option out multiple sites considered.

But residents of the nearby McCollough neighborhood have expressed concerns since they first heard of Pineville’s plan in December, saying they think it could drag down their property values and negatively impact health, safety and local businesses. At a public meeting in January, some residents questioned why town leadership hadn’t considered future infrastructure needs more when deciding on development deals.

Mayor Pro Tem Ed Samaha and Council member Danielle Moore voted against the measures Monday, and Council members Amelia Stinson-Wesley and Chris McDonough voted for them.

That left Mayor David Phillips to cast two tie-breaking “yes” votes.

“It was, in my opinion, just the smartest decision to make at this particular time,” he told The Charlotte Observer after the meeting. “It’s not anything that I’m happy about, but, you know, sometimes you have to make decisions that are best for the town.”

As residents filed out of the brief meeting at the Pineville Town Hall, some shouted their displeasure at town leaders.

“We can’t wait for the next election,” one person said.

Months of debate over Pineville substation site

Word of the new substation site came out in December, when the town sent out a news release saying it was working to buy about an acre at the intersection of Miller Road and Greenway Drive for a new substation to accommodate growth in the area and “serve as a back-up source to an existing substation.” The town picked the site because it was the “most economical and least obtrusive to the community,” and the substation would be enclosed by a brick wall with plants around the outside, the release said.

That release immediately sparked a reaction among neighbors, who expressed concerns about the potential impacts on their health, safety and property values and launched a petition in opposition to the plan.

More than 100 people attended a January public meeting about the proposal.

McCollough resident Jarred Muraco said at Monday’s vote he got involved in the opposition in December.

“I just don’t think it’s the best use of anybody’s time or money to do this,” he said.

Muraco questioned whether town leaders have been honest about the funding for the project and said he shares some of the concerns about health impacts and property values other residents have brought up.

“The health concern is an issue. It’s unsightly,” he said.

Some residents have said they’re worried electromagnetic fields from the substation could lead to health problems, particularly in children or elderly people. Town leaders have pushed back on those claims in meetings on the plan.

Experts say there’s not a clear-cut connection between exposure to electromagnetic fields and health issues.

“The possible link between electromagnetic fields and cancer has been a subject of controversy for several decades,” the American Cancer Society says, because “it’s not clear exactly how electromagnetic fields, a form of low-energy, non-ionizing radiation, could increase cancer risk.”

While the World Health Organization “classifies extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans,” the Environmental Protection Agency notes that “scientific studies have not consistently shown whether exposure to any source of EMF increases cancer risk.”

McCollough resident Sean Price said the situation has him questioning how the town’s electric fund is managed.

“They are the stewards of this community as elected officials with the obligation to serve their community,” he said. “I hope they will look in the mirror and use the alternative solution that the people of this community demand.”

I-Chin Lin, another McCullough resident who first shared her thoughts on the project with the Observer in December, said Monday’s vote left her “disappointed.”

“They did not do their due diligence,” she said. “And now they are asking us residents to pay for their oversight. This is unacceptable.”

Why this site for substation, and why now?

The town picked its top choice out of 10 locations that were examined, town manager Ryan Spitzer and David Lucore, Pineville’s electric services manager and a systems manager for ElectriCities of North Carolina, said at the January meeting.

Complications with the other sites included proximity to floodplains and wetlands and distance from usable transmission lines.

“There’s not a whole lot of options,” Lucore said at the time.

Pineville Electric, which provides electric services in the town, is a public provider that’s part of ElectriCities, which provides services to member organizations. Public power providers differ from utility companies such as Duke Energy because they are part of local governments and often part of membership organizations such as ElectriCities.

Time is of the essence for the project, according to town leaders, because growth in Pineville means the town’s current electric grid is close to being overtaxed, which could lead to power outages. Pineville’s population grew from 7,479 to 10,602 from 2010 to 2020, according to Census data. The town’s 2022 population estimate, the most recent Census data available, puts Pineville at 10,886 residents.

The new substation project would need to be completed by the end of 2025 to avoid issues, Lucore said in January.

Multiple residents at the January meeting questioned why more consideration wasn’t given to one of the other 10 sites. That site is near the one approved Monday but further from the subdivision. It would cost about $1 million more than the currently chosen site, Lucore said previously, an expense that could be passed on to consumers through higher rates. But some at the meeting said they’d be willing to take on a slightly higher electric bill to pay that higher cost.

Both parcels in question are owned by the Miller family. Spitzer indicated at the January meeting that the Millers, through their attorney, have been resistant to sell either plot. But members of the family in attendance at that meeting and their representatives spoke up to say they’d be more open to selling the other land than the controversial site.

Spitzer said after Monday’s vote that the town attorney will file paperwork to send letters to the affected property owners, and they’ll have at least 30 days to respond. Asked whether he thought the town could still negotiate a deal for the land rather than condemn it, Spitzer said “that’s always the favorable outcome.”

Phillips said that town staff have been working to put together a plan “for a couple of years” but ultimately a decision had to be made.

“We’re on a pretty solid timeline that we have to meet,” he said.

Phillips added that he campaigned on fiscal responsibility and feels that the site that was chosen is the most economical for the town.

“At the end of the day, we have a budget we need to follow, and we need to try to have funding available for other stuff we need to do,” he said.

‘Lesser of two evils’

Despite the vocal opposition to the plan, not every resident at Monday’s meeting disagreed with the vote.

Laura Stout and Debby Brown said they’ve both lived close to Pineville’s existing substation for years and never had any issues.

“It’s a hard situation to deal with. But you have to do the lesser of the two evils, I guess,” Brown said.

Stout said she’s attended Town Council meetings for years as the community has grown, and she wishes elected officials had done more to prepare for the challenges that come with development and growth.

“The rapid growth in Pineville has been something that has concerned me and many residents for many years. And we have raised that alarm for many years with the previous council that things needed to slow down because we didn’t have the infrastructure in place to handle it,” she said. “And now that has caught up to us. And if something is not done, we’re going to lose power, and obviously nobody wants that.”

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