Sounding the alarm!

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2023

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GATESVILLE – Gates County is taking the lead to sound the alarm to a potential hazard that may be experienced statewide.

At their scheduled meeting here April 19, the Gates County Board of Commissioners received an update regarding the progress of expanding broadband internet throughout the county. Erna Bright, a retired technician from CenturyLink who serves as the Chair of the county’s Broadband Task Force, told the commissioners that fiber lines are currently being placed at multiple locations throughout the county by contractors working for Roanoke Connect and Spectrum.

While tracking the local installation of those fiber optic lines, Bright said he noted the placement of the aerial fiber is too low on joint use poles in some locations.

“That will cause a problem for our farmers,” Bright said.

However, Bright said that one contractor immediately cited a North Carolina General Statute regarding utility wires, which lists the minimum vertical clearance at 15 and one-half feet. That minimum height increases to 18 feet when a utility line crosses a state-maintained road.

“When there are poles in a farmer’s field, it seems like they [contractors] want to put [the lines] at whatever height they desire,” Bright noted during his presentation. “I have measured them as low as nine feet and 13 feet….very few at 15 and one-half feet. A million-dollar combine picking cotton won’t quite make it under that wire.”

Bright said upon asking the internet provider who is responsible if a fiber line is torn down by a piece of farming equipment, the answer was the operator/owner of the combine.

He added that the low-hanging lines are more prevalent in farm fields where the fiber lines are strung across longer spans (between poles, 200 to 300 feet apart).

“It doesn’t affect every farmer everywhere, but where it does it’s a problem. We have to work with the state to try and correct this,” Bright stressed, adding that he could think of at least 75 to 100 places in Gates County right now where the lines need to be raised.

He noted the newer cotton combines are 18 and one-half feet.

“You can’t ask a farmer to leave the crop in the field, not harvest it at or near a 15.5 foot utility line; he’s leaving money in the field,” Bright remarked. “The Utilities Commission, the state, whoever, will need to make some changes to help us.”

Bright said he has already contacted the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

“They responded by saying they have referred this issue to the North Carolina Information Technology Group and DOT (Department of Transportation),” Bright said.

“Agriculture is our bread and butter here in Gates County and we need some help with this,” he added.

Gates County Cooperative Extension Service Agricultural Agent Paul Smith concurred with Bright’s assessment of the problems facing local farmers due to the low height of the broadband lines.

Smith’s research showed that combines range in height of 15.5 feet to 17.5 feet. The newest cotton combines, he said, have a height of 17 feet, eight inches. Some, he added, will reach heights of 18 feet when they make turns at the end of the rows.

“These machines can’t get under these lines,” Smith said. “The farmers are having to call the electric company now to get them to raise up the lines or try to work around them. Some of these broadband lines, I’ve been told, are 40 inches below the electric lines.”

Smith said he welcomes the expansion of broadband across Gates County.

“But at the same time the lines are going to be torn down. That will put us in the same shape we are right now without broadband unless this matter can be addressed,” he stressed.

Smith also pointed out that if a farmer’s equipment is damaged upon encountering a low utility line, then that means a hefty repair bill in the “thousands of dollars” he said.

“At the same time, the farmers will lose valuable time in doing whatever they were doing at the time the damage was done,” he observed.

Then there is the threat of the loss of human life.

“If a piece of farming equipment hits one of these lines and pulls the electric pole down and the equipment is tangled in the electric wires, we stand the possibility of losing somebody to electrocution,” Smith noted.

“If there’s anything you can do to get these lines higher or underground, I think it will be a benefit to the county and to our farmers,” Smith concluded.

Bob Steinburg, who represents Gates County as a political lobbyist, said he has reached out to officials in Raleigh in regards to the potential hazards associated with the low-hanging utility lines. He added that the issue at hand with the General Assembly taking any action on the problem is timing.

“They may be finishing their current session in late May,” Steinburg said. “If that’s the case and this particular issue is just surfacing, it’s almost an insurmountable task to get something done before they adjourn.”

Steinburg noted that this is an issue that needs to be addressed all across the state.

“There’s a lot of homework that needs to be done to make sure this is done right for all of our farmers,” he said.

He mentioned the “other side of the issue”….those companies investing millions of dollars into the expansion of broadband.

“They are adhering to the state statute that regulates the height of utility lines,” Steinburg said. “They are looking at additional expenses if the regulations change. Then you weigh that against the agricultural factor and the safety concerns. This will not be, I believe, a quick fix. I’ll do my part to represent you with the powers that be so that some sort of plan can be developed.”

Steinburg added that the information and concerns shared by Bright and Smith would be of great benefit as he meets face-to-face with state leaders in Raleigh to address this issue.

“I think it would be beneficial to ask for a minimum height of 20 feet for these lines,” Steinburg suggested. “That’s because farming equipment is forever changing.”

Commission Chair Dr. Althea Riddick said that Gates County is part of a 15-county Broadband Collaborative, all in the northeastern part of the state.

“This issue with the low lines has been bought to the attention of our Collaborative as we are all in an area that relies greatly on agriculture,” Riddick stated. “This is on their radar and we realize that this is a statewide issue as well. We all need broadband, but we need to do this right.”

Riddick stressed that she felt this issue was an oversight during the planning process to expand broadband in rural areas of the state.

Later in the meeting, County Manager Scott Sauer suggested that the commissioners craft a resolution or a letter regarding this potential hazard. The list of recipients, he said, needs to include NC Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler.

“I think it’s time to sound the alarm,” Sauer said. “I’m quite surprised to learn that this hasn’t already come to the attention of our leaders in Raleigh.

“These are very troubling circumstances for those out there trying to make a living, using very sophisticated and expensive farming equipment and having to worry about a line when they are operating in the dark and in very dusty conditions. They may not see that low hanging line and create damage that no one had intended,” Sauer added.

Commission Vice Chair Jonathan Craddock motioned to approve Sauer’s suggestion, which passed without objection.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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