McLemore's Cove residents trying to protect wetlands from electric corporation [photos]

McLemore's Cove residents trying to protect wetlands from electric corporation [photos]

September 29th, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 9/26/16. Stephanie Everett walks past Touch Me Not flowers lining wetlands on her family property where she is fighting to keep North Georgia EMC from clearing the land to install taller power poles.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Gallery: McLemore's Cove residents tussle with electric corporation

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CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — Down here, with little but the trees and the grass and the mountain backdrop, Stephanie Everett can hear vehicles coming before they even turn the corner.

So one morning in early July, as the noise of trucks rumbled past her driveway on South Cedar Lane, Everett felt confused. She had already talked to employees of the North Georgia Electric Membership Corp.; she knew they wanted to put in new, taller power poles behind her home.

The new poles were to go in the same spots as the current ones: in a forest area behind her house. They'll allow another utility to provide internet service in the area. But to make that happen, North Georgia EMC had to clear room.

Everett thought company officials were still debating the issue. Instead, she said, contractors for North Georgia EMC showed up behind her house, unannounced, driving a Jarraff Line Trimmer — a hulking, yellow machine with a long, metal arm designed to wipe out plants.

Everett said she shouted from her porch. The workers couldn't hear her. She ran into her car, drove to her backyard and honked her horn until the workers halted. She told them they couldn't clear the plants, that they were in wetlands, 4 feet from a tributary.

She told them wiping out the plants would be bad for the environment. She is unsure whether a federal agency has declared her property protected, though a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources called the area a wetland.

Everett said the workers called someone at the company and went home. But since then, several times a month, Everett said, she has found more workers showing up at her family farm in McLemore's Cove, ready to clear land. Each time, she was there, ready to shoo them away.

She said she has talked with the corporation's crew managers, linesmen and arborists, trained professionals who manage trees.

"It just kept happening," Everett said. "Over and over and over again."

On Monday morning, after a slew of phone calls and emails for almost three months, Everett met with representatives of North Georgia EMC, hoping to explain one last time why she didn't want workers to tear down the plants that are growing from the wetlands.

Stephanie Holder, vice president of member services at North Georgia EMC, said after the meeting that the corporation wants to protect the environment, too. Georgia law gives the corporation the right of way for power lines, meaning they can prune branches or other vegetation that is encroaching on the lines.

"We understand and respect the wetland," she said. "We're trying to work with her to make some reasonable access to the [power] poles."

Like workers for any other electric corporation, North Georgia EMC representatives need to manage the plants around their power lines. Holder said letting the branches of tall trees tangle with the lines causes power outages.

Two lines run out of a pole. The top one is the primary line, and the lower one is the neutral line. If a tree branch is touching both of those lines at the same time, the electricity will run from the line down the branch and into the tree, because trees conduct electricity.

When that happens, Holder said, a "fault" is created across the line. The fault carries back to a switch, which opens and the power stops working.

But Stephanie Everett objects to the methods she believes the tree cutters will use to install the taller power poles. She thinks they are going to destroy too much of the vegetation in the wetlands. Taking out the plants will wipe out homes for some reptiles and other animals, she said.

On Monday, Stephanie Holder said the corporation will find a way to put in the new poles and protect the most vegetation possible. She isn't yet sure what the best solution is.

"That's quite a task," she said after touring the wetlands.

She also isn't sure why tree cutters continually came back to Stephanie Everett's property for the last three months, even when the corporation hadn't found the best solution to the problem.

Stephanie Everett said her family has owned the farm in McLemore's Cove for 99 years. At one point, they had about 400 acres. She and her fiancé moved here in 2011 from San Francisco to build a new life, and they became organic farmers.

Jay Clark, a retired local science teacher who wrote "Wildflowers of Pigeon Mountain," said the wetlands are important to the environment in Walker County. Creek water flows into this location from several directions, he said. Deposits also drift here off the mountain, forming loam — a fertile soil made of clay and sand.

That all creates a welcoming environment for plants to grow: Ironweeds and Swamp Dogwoods and Cardinal Flowers, among others. Likewise, Clark said, the vegetation attracts frogs, minnows and songbirds. He said deer bring their fawns to the wetlands because the vegetation cloaks them from predators.

A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said there are no known endangered species in the area. But Clark argued the environment still needs to be protected.

"You have to go for miles to find this much [plant] diversity in such a small spot," he said. "It's really a critical habitat."

Down the street from Stephanie Everett, a neighbor said he also had problems with tree cutters for North Georgia EMC this month. Rick Owens was out of town for work at the beginning of September when some contractors cleared cedar and walnut trees that lined his driveway.

Owens, a photographer for The Chattanooga Times until 1992, said the trees had been there since he moved into McLemore's Cove about 30 years ago. The branches drooped over his driveway from both sides, and he felt like he was driving through a tunnel when he entered his property.

Trimmers for the power corporation had cut back branches several times before, Owens said. But this time, they cut the branches back several feet, leaving stumps. Now, he said, his yard looks naked.

"They come in, they destroy it, and they're gone," he said. "Then they leave me to look at this for 10 years, maybe 15. It's just like starting all over again."

On Monday morning, North Georgia EMC employees apologized to Owens.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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