The Pitt County Board of Commissioners decided to continue until Nov. 1 a public hearing on a special use permit to allow a cryptocurrency mining operation in Belvoir following more than 2½ hours of testimony from company officials and community advocates.
The commissioners voted 7-1 to continue the public hearing. Commissioners Ann Floyd Huggins, Alex Albright, Tom Coulson, Christopher Nunnally, Beth Ward, Lauren White and Mary Perkins-Williams voted to extend the meeting and Commissioner Melvin McLawhorn cast the lone no vote. Commissioner Michael Fitzpatrick was absent.
Officials with Compute North, the firm seeking the permit, started Monday’s board meeting asking that the quasi-judicial process be postponed until Nov. 1 but the commissioners denied the request because of the number of community members at the meeting who wanted to speak.
They changed their mind late in the public hearing process when Compute North Vice President of Site Development Jeff Jackson said he had hoped to have acoustical engineers testify on noise from the facility but learned at the last minute that virtual testimony wasn’t allowed during the public hearing, which is a quasi-judicial process that requires people who are giving testimony to be sworn in.
Jackson said the company would do its best to have the sound experts available on Nov. 1 Opponents also will have a chance to present their own sound experts.
“We have certainly heard the feedback loud and clear,” said Compute North CEO Dave Perrill. The company wants to engage with the community and have started by giving a donation to Staton House Volunteer Fire Department, which serves the Belvoir area and is where the company held a community meeting last week; it hired Third Street Catering; talked with Pitt Community College about establishing internships, met with officials with Vidant Health and have a meeting planned with Pitt County Schools.
"Speaking to Vidant, to Pitt Community College and other major corporations is still not an example of engaging citizens other than, again, those who would financially gain from this project," said Tonya Foreman, founder of CAREE, Citizens Advocating for Racial Equity and Equality.
"People have a right to influence decisions that affect their day to day lived experiences," Foreman said. "This may not have been a surprise to the board, or Greenville Utilities or even the landowners who would profit from this project but it was indeed a surprise to the citizens of Belvoir."
Engaging people in the community can lead to better outcomes for all involved, Foreman said.
A number of opposition speakers repeated Jefferson's statement at an Oct. 13 community meeting that the company had not researched the makeup of the Belvoir community and didn't know it was a community with large Hispanic and Black populations.
Compute North's facility will be about three tenths of a mile from Belvoir Elementary School, which also is predominately Hispanic and African-American. Opponents also said the company never reached out to the school system. Jackson said during a community meeting last week he thought a local economic development official had notified the school system.
Compute North, a Minnesota-based data processing firm, wants to build a data center on 50 acres bordered by N.C. 33 West, Belvoir School Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The facility is about three-tenths of a mile from Belvoir Elementary School and will consist of 89 containers that house banks of computers and 14 air conditioning units each. The computers run constantly in the cryptocurrency mining process unless ordered to shutdown by the utility company during peak use.
Parents whose children attend the school, along with nearby residents, oppose the project because they believe the noise generated by the fans would hurt student concentration and erode the area’s quality of life.
Jackson confirmed more than 1,200 fans will operate once all containers are operational. He said the noise level at the school would be 40 decibels, which was likened to a quiet library during a meeting with citizens last week.
Coulson said when he was in the military, and had to undergo resistance training in case of capture, he and other trainees were subjected to a low constant drone in the background.
“That became very bothersome,” Coulson said.
Jackson said Compute North has worked from the assumption that if it meets the county’s noise ordinance and the site doesn’t exceed 50 decibels, “we’ll be set.”
“We assumed compliance with the ordinance would actually eliminate a lot of the noise issues,” Jackson said.
Paul Mellon, whose child attends Belvoir school, said Compute North has not given a consistent answer when questioned about the fans' noise.
"Disingenuousness worsens the situation," Mellon said.
Mellon said when his wife talked to Jackson, he said decibel readings at its Kearney, Neb., site were 90 decibels. No one during the community meeting mentioned 90 decibels, Mellon said. Jackson said the decibel readings at the containers are 90 decibels but with mitigation will be lowered.
"Jeff Jackson said noise was the number one priority here. Jackson had said that knowing the acoustical analysis, paid for by Compute North, is only available today," Mellon said. "How can they make that commitment without relative facts available."
Commissioner Alex Albright said the lack of detail about what mitigation methods would be used has contributed to the community’s misapprehension.
Jackson said while the company is looking for cost effective methods, silencers on the intake and exhaust sides of the containers would be used as it is at other data centers.
There also would be sound mitigation walls that would reach about 24 feet in height, he said.
Victor Respass, whose home is near the proposed site, asked how people are expected to sleep soundly with the fans' noise.
"This is literally an attack on the health of this neighborhood. Whether they can prove it or we can provide it or not," Respass said.
Molly Holdeman, whose daughter attend Belvoir school, wanted to play a computer audio recording of a cryptocurrency mining operation located in Washington County, Tennessee. Compute North attorney James Todd objected, saying since the individual who made the recording wasn’t present to verify its authenticity it should be treated as hearsay.
Commissioner Christopher Nunnally, an attorney, said he believed the commissioners should hear it and the others concurred.
In the recording an industrial-type of hum can be heard along with a male voice saying, “And there you have it. That’s the rest of our evening and all morning tomorrow.”
Jackson later said that the operator of the Tennessee site did not follow the proper process for obtaining their operating permit. The company also used a different style of container.
Holdeman said she called the Kearney development office and they confirmed there are no homes within a mile of Compute North's facility. The speaker also said the town had received "a few complaints" about noise but Compute North representatives said they "were working on it."
"While a few complaints may not sound bad, there were noise complaints from people living a mile away from a facility that is substantially smaller than this proposed one," Holdeman said.
William Brown, who owns part of the property Compute North wants, said the project opponents shouldn't be able to prevent him from using his land as he sees fit. People who move to rural areas shouldn't expect places to remain open, he said.
"I don't understand why his property rights override my property rights," said Respass. He also doubted mitigation efforts to reduce the effects of the fans' humming, saying he can hear aircraft at the Pitt County-Greenville Airport which is miles away.
At one point Coulson and McLawhorn and Perkins-Williams said they couldn’t support Compute North’s recommendation. Coulson later softened his stance when it was recommended the public hearing be carried into November.
“We don’t want to overreact and let a potentially good business escape us because of our short sightedness,” Coulson said.
Concealed carry vote
The board also approved an ordinance change preventing people with permits to carry concealed from bringing handguns on county owned property.
The vote came towards the end of a six-hour board meeting that saw opponents to the change raise objections for 45 minutes during the public comments period.
More than 22 people attended Monday’s meeting in opposition to the change. The majority had to stay in the hallway outside the commissioners’ auditorium because of COVID-19 protocols limiting the people allowed in the room.
The board initially approved the ordinance in September but because it was a split decision a second vote was needed.
Initially, there was a motion to keep the concealed carry rule in place but it failed when 3-5 Commissioners Chris Nunnally, Ann Floyd Huggins, Alex Albright, Mary Perkins-Williams and Melvin McLawhorn voted against it and Commissioners Tom Coulson, Beth Ward and Lauren White voted yes.
A second motion to approve the modified ordinance passed 5-3.