LUMBERTON — Although they previously passed a resolution supporting the construction of the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Robeson County commissioners Monday voted to delay action on a conditional-use permit that would allow for the placement of a monitoring station and 350-foot-tall microwave cell tower near Pembroke.
The decision was pleased opponents of the pipeline, who say not enough public input has been permitted in the planning process. Supporters of the pipeline were shocked that the same commissioners who have passed a resolution supporting the natural gas pipeline suddenly decided to delay approving a permit that would move construction forward.
All seven of the commissioners present voted at the recommendation of Commissioner Noah Woods that the permit not be denied but just delayed until pubic hearings are held in Robeson County to educate the public about the proposed pipeline. Commissioner David Edge was not present.
The commissioners made their decision after the Rev. Mac Legerton and Robie Goins, both members of the environmental group Eco-Robeson, pleaded with them to hold public meetings before any approval of the monitoring station and cell tower that would be constructed beside N.C. 710, on 2.6 acres of a 17.608-acre tract owned by Piedmont Natural Gas Company Inc.
The proposed interstate natural gas transmission pipeline is to originate in Harrison County, West Virginia, and end at the site of the proposed monitoring station and cell tower. At the Pembroke site, the pipeline would interconnect with the existing Piedmont Natural gas line for further distribution of the natural gas.
Hal Kitchin, a Wilmington attorney representing Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, a partnership consisting of subsidiaries of Dominion Resources, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and Southern Company, said that the pipeline has not yet been permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but approval hopefully will come this year.
Kitchin said that the utilities station would deliver the natural gas to Piedmont, as well as meter and regulate the flow. The cell tower would be used to monitor control, security and safety of the pipeline.
But despite repeated warnings from Patrick Pait, the county’s attorney, that discussion and comments should only address the station and cell tower, the hearing quickly morphed into the pros and cons of the pipeline.
Legerton charged that county residents have not had the chance to express their opinions at public hearings held at the state or federal levels. He told the commissioners not holding a public hearing would go against what the county has always done when facing a major issue that affects the environment.
“I’m not saying deny the permit,” an emotional Legerton said. “I’m saying let’s vet, listen and learn before we do something. We know little of the dangers of this project.”
Legerton accused the utility companies of changing the route of the proposed pipeline so it goes away from the wealthier areas and instead passes through poor areas where people are not as well-educated about the project.
Goins said that his family owns property adjacent to the site proposed for the station and tower and that it would be “an eyesore” in the community.
“I don’t want this passing through my community,” he said.
Bo Biggs, a prominent Lumberton businessman and supporter of the pipeline, was confused by the decision.
“The commissioners have endorsed the pipeline in a resolution,” he said. “What is the logic in endorsing the pipeline and then delaying it because of pressure from environmentalists?”
Bruce McKay, senior energy policy director of state and local affairs for Dominion Energy, said that his company will provide the commissioners with all of the information they request. Dominion Energy is leading the construction and operation of the pipeline.
“This is the most thoroughly organized gathering of documentation for a project like this ever,” he said. “People have had ample time to have input into the process. Thousands have participated in the process since it began three years ago.”
The commissioners did not say when they would hold public information meetings concerning the pipeline.
In other business, the commissioners on Monday held a public hearing to receive comments pertaining to incentives for a new industry planning to locate and do business in the county.
Referred to as Project Cloth, the company plans to invest $700,000 in equipment, machinery and a building. It would create 44 jobs and pay an average hourly wage of $12.
Greg Cummings, the county’s economic developer and industrial recruiter, said the company operates in several locations in India, but Robeson County is its first venture in the United States.
Also at Monday’s meeting:
— Dereck Coe, chairman of the Robeson County Department of Social Services board, presented Commissioner Raymond Cummings with a plaque for his years of service on the board. Cummings was replaced on the board by Commissioner Roger Oxendine.
— Dencie Lambdin, with the Robeson County Community in Schools, made a presentation about the fifth annual Book ‘Em Writer’s Conference to be held on Sept. 23 at Robeson Community College. The one-day event will bring together more than 75 authors, publishers, literary agents and publicists.
Proceeds are used to increase literacy rates for people of all ages and fund law enforcement efforts aimed at reducing crime.
— The commissioners passed a resolution without discussion requesting the county’s state legislative delegation to propose and move a bill through the General Assembly requesting authorization for the county to levy a room occupancy tax.
— The commissioners approved $13,000 to support a regional ground water level monitoring program being conducted by the Lumber River Council of Governments.
— Theresa Walker was reappointed to serve on the Lumber River Workforce Development Board.
— Commissioner Jerry Stephens was appointed to the Airport Commission.
— The commissioners recognized members of the Dixie Youth girls softball team from West Robeson that recently won the North Carolina championship and is now headed for the league’s World Series. Members of the team are between the ages of 13 and 15.
— The commissioners approved a request from Charles Stephen Stone to rezone one acre of a 5.1-acre tract in a Residential Agricultural District in Lumberton to allow for a duplex for multi-family living.
— Three requests for conditional-use permits were approved, one to allow for the establishment of a cemetery for Northside Independent Church in Back Swamp; one to allow Jack Maynor to establish an inspection station and make small vehicle repairs in Shannon; and one to allow Yadira Sanchez to establish a beauty salon in Red Springs.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.