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Utilities Commission public staff to hold meeting here next week

The staff of the North Carolina Utilities Commission will hold a meeting in Hendersonville next week to hear local residents’ comments and to answer questions about the proposed 45-mile power line that would cross Henderson County.

The Utilities Commission executive director, Christopher J. Ayers, agreed to a request from County Manager Steve Wyatt and the Board of Commissioners to hear comments and answer questions for up to three hours starting at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the Blue Ridge Conference Hall at BRCC.
“It’s an opportunity for the leaders in the community and the citizens obviously to get questions answered regarding all relevant parts of this project,” Wyatt said. “This is the public utilities staff. This is a step.”
The Board of Commissioners had come under increasing pressure from residents to follow the course of three towns and Polk County’s Board of Commissioners and formally oppose the 230-kilovolt transmission line held up by140-foot towers. Instead, Wyatt said, county leaders thought that a more useful approach would be providing public information and an opportunity to speak directly to the staff of the decision-making body.
“We feel like this is a tangible step,” he said. “There’s a heckuva lot of rumor and speculation out there. But we know we don’t have a regulatory role here (at the county level). So let’s bring as a first step the Utilities Commission staff here to answer questions about the process and the criteria so that people know the decision makers. Duke Power’s not the decision maker. Duke Power will make a request. The Utilities Commission staff will vet that request.”
Wyatt emphasized that next week’s meeting is one step in an ongoing effort by county leaders to make sure the process is transparent and that property owners get their say before the Utilities Commission makes a decision on Duke’s transmission line application.
“I have discussed with Mr. Ayers and made a request that the Utilities Commission as a whole convene here prior to making a decision and have offered to host that meeting. He has indicated that he would try to make that happen.”
Word of the public meeting traveled quickly among activists opposing the line. Gordon Smith, one of the leaders of a group opposing a western route, said he welcomed the news.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said.

The public staff will review Duke Energy's request and make a recommendation to the Utilities Commission, said James McLawhorn, the electric division chief of the public staff.

"We’ll be charged with reviewing that (application) and making a recommendation to the commission about what they should do — require more study, move the line, whatever," he said.

Like Duke's own action to expedite its choosing of a route for the line, the Utilities Commission is reacting to a groundswell of opposition and anxiety in the community.

"We have not typically done that (held a hearing this early) but because of the interest we think it’s important to try and go out and talk to interested parties and get as much information as we can," McLawhorn said.