Apple is clearing land in Maiden for a project it calls “Solar panel farm A.”
The company is burning and cutting down about 108 acres of land across the street from its data center, which opened earlier this year at 5977 Startown Road.
On Wednesday, after complaints from residents about smoke, Apple asked contractors at the site to chip wood rather than burn it, according to a statement from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Division of Air Quality.
While some Maiden-area residents feel destruction of forest and brush is environmentally bad, others say the long-term benefits of solar power are worth the clearing.
Apple started burning chopped trees and brush last week, causing thick plumes of smoke to hover around the Startown road and U.S. 321 area in the early morning and late afternoon. The company has been clearing the land for weeks.
What Apple will build remains unknown, but the corporation recently hinted that a solar farm may be in the works. It named the clearing project “Solar panel farm A” on an erosion control permit that was approved by Catawba County on Oct. 10.
The permit is required any time more than one acre of land is disturbed, said Toni Norton, Catawba County water resources engineer.
In Apple’s approved permit, the corporation requested to re-shape and slope 107.99 acres of land at 6028 Startown Road, across the street from its data center.
The permit offers no details about the solar farm itself, and the corporation did not respond to a call seeking comment Wednesday.
The permit does provide plans for how Apple’s contractors will keep removed sediment and forest out of creeks, rivers and roadways.
Norton said she and two other inspectors are monitoring Apple’s clearing process daily.
“They’ve just barely started, but so far, so good,” Norton said. “From my experience with them the last time they did this, I don’t expect any problems.”
Apple has cleared — and burned — land in the past, making room for such projects as its existing data center and additional parking lots in Maiden.
Though the company has removed forest and farm area before, it also prides itself on using sustainable energy and maintaining a low carbon footprint.
In 2010, for example, the company was responsible for about 14.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Its facilities, including the Maiden data center, accounted for 2 percent of those emissions, according to Apple’s website.
Maiden officials were informed about the current burning before it started last week, but the town does not know what Apple plans to build there.
“Since July 2009, the contractors working for Apple have, from time to time, cleared property,” said Todd Herms, Maiden’s town manager. “This time, they are clearing across the street and that has lent itself to more interest. And the fact that the smoke has been reported to have been thick and near a subdivision where people live has also added to that interest.”
Though Apple is in compliance with erosion control and may build sustainable technology on the land eventually, many neighbors to the property feel the clearing is destructive and bothersome.
Deborah Myatt lives on the Maiden town line on land directly adjacent the forest being cleared on Startown Road. She says there has been little communication between Apple and residents since the company moved in two years ago, continued silence about projects she feels have been damaging to the environment.
“When they cleared the area across the street, the animals came here,” Myatt said. “Now that they are clearing this spot, I don’t know where those animals are going to go.”
She said there has been an influx of coyotes, rabbits and deer visiting open land since the clearing began.
Residents like Myatt understand the long-term benefits of a solar panel farm, but wonder if alternative planning could have protected the forests.
“Could they put solar panels on the roof? Is there any way we can save the green space?” Myatt questioned. “There’s no place for the animals and I worry about the quality of the air. The trees that were giving us an immediate source of oxygen are gone. They are all burned.”
Since the burning started last week, Myatt said her throat has been scratchy, and she has suffered some nasal congestion.
Area air quality readings have been normal as of late, but close exposure to the burning could pose issues to health, said Taylor Dellinger, who monitors reports of air quality readings as a data analyst for the Western Piedmont Council of Governments.
Documents like the erosion permit hint that a solar farm will be built on the cleared property, but it’s still unclear what exactly is in the works.
When Apple will build is also uncertain.
In 2009, the company announced a $1 billion investment over 10 years.
Its data center filled out a large chunk of the investment, but did not fulfill the entire sum. Apple has about eight more years to build something and finish off its part of the deal.
Neither of Apple’s contractors returned calls as of press time on Wednesday to specify what may be built on the property.
Maiden officials, too, are not sure what will be built.
“I cannot say for sure what their plans are for that property, but I truly believe if, and when, they decide to construct something on that property, it will be for the betterment of the town and their facility,” Herms said.
When Apple does decide to build, it will have to file zoning permits with the town and building permits with the county.
Myatt is unsure what Apple will build. She said she is not interested in big secrets, but she said better communication from the company would greatly assist neighbors near the property.
“We’re going to be neighbors for a long time,” Myatt said. “There are things they could do and it would create a lot better community attitude if they notified everyone of something."