Wilkes and other rural counties are leading North Carolina’s COVID-19 case growth per 100,000 people as the virus continues to surge across the state and nation, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Thirty-one new cases were reported Monday and 16 Tuesday in Wilkes, giving the county a total of 2,297 Tuesday. Among the 2,297 cases, 259 were “active cases” and a record (for Wilkes) 25 of the 259 were hospitalized.
Eleven of the current active cases are residents (10) and staff (one) at Rose Glen Manor, an assisted living facility in North Wilkesboro with a current COVID-19 outbreak, said Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard.
Willard also reported the county’s 44th confirmed COVID-19-related death Tuesday, a person in his/her 70s who died Friday in Wilkes.
She said that among COVID-19 tests given in Wilkes in the 24 hours before Tuesday, 14.6% tested positive. The test rate for Wilkes for the entire pandemic is 10%. Both rates are well above 5%, the rate generally considered acceptable.
Wilkes ranked sixth among the state’s 100 counties in total new cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days with 576 on Monday. (Wilkes actually added 394 cases in the last two weeks, but calculating each county’s number per 100,000 people allows an equal comparison regardless of county population.)
Mitchell County had the most with 1,049 per 100,000, followed by Alexander with 893, Columbus with 730, Catawba with 596 and Greene with 593. The other two counties with 501 or more per 100,000 people were Sampson with 535 and Ashe with 504. Wilkes has ranked among the top 10 for at least a week.
Per 100,000 totals for the last 14 days for other adjoining counties were Surry, 492; Caldwell, 425; Yadkin, 388; Alleghany, 368; Iredell, 321; and Watauga, 258.
Nearly twice as many of the state’s new COVID-19 cases since September were in rural counties, according to a DHHS report released Nov. 12. Most of the rural cases were in the white population and among people are 49 or younger.
The report said the increase in rural counties is fueled by community spread of the virus rather than by cases in congregate living settings like nursing homes or jails.
Willard attributed the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Wilkes to community spread when Eddie Settle, chairman of the county commissioners, asked about the status of the virus at the board’s Nov. 5 meeting.
“People can’t tell us where they’re getting it from. It’s from work, home, church,” said Willard, as well as from family and other small gatherings. It’s just all out there…. People aren’t washing their hands, they’re not wearing masks and not taking other precautions.” She said she’s worried about the holidays.
Willard said a vaccine for COVID-19 is expected to be available in late November or early December. It will first be offered to people working at health care and long-term care facilities, plus people 65 or older with two or more health conditions.
Also on Monday, Wilkes was among nearly half of North Carolina’s 100 counties shown in the red zone (highest COVID-19 risk level) on a Harvard University map with all counties nationwide. This was based on average number of new cases per day for the seven-day period ending Saturday. Red indicates an average of more than 25 new cases per 100,000 people for seven-day periods. Ashe, Surry, Yadkin and Alexander counties also were in the red Monday.
For the first time since the pandemic started, state officials are suggesting that people get tested if they plan to travel for the holidays, even if they don’t have symptoms or aren’t in a high-risk group.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said people traveling for the holidays should consider getting a coronavirus test three or four days in advance.
It was announced at the Nov. 12 press conference that Gov. Roy Cooper’s office is supplying college and universities with 74,470 rapid tests, paid for by the federal government, for students to use before leaving campus for the holidays.
Holiday gatherings, where people who don’t usually live together sit side-by-side indoors, are conditions where the coronavirus spreads easily.
“We have to approach those traditions very carefully,” Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of Infection Prevention at UNC Medical Center, said during a UNC Health news conference on Nov. 12. “COVID transmission won’t halt for the holidays.”
Sickbert-Bennett said even people who test negative before traveling should still practice all the other safety precautions.
“A negative test only gives you information about a single point in time. It does not mean you will remain negative after that test. This can be very worrisome,” she said.
They’ve seen instances in the community and the hospital were testing has given people a false sense of security, leading them to dismiss COVID-19 symptoms because they had recently tested negative, she said.
“Don’t use that as a substitute for any other prevention measures,” she said.
The southeastern corner of Wilkes experienced unexpectedly severe flooding on Nov. 12 due to as much as 10 inches of rain in that area, but flooding occurred elsewhere in the county.
Only two weeks earlier, more widespread flooding occurred in Wilkes. Both flood events were related to the remains of tropical storms.
Hunting Creek left its banks and flooded multiple sections of N.C. 115 and Hunting Creek Road. A small car was swept away by floodwaters while being driven on Hunting Creek Road the morning of Nov. 12.
The man driving the Chevrolet Cruze was able to exit and climb on top of the vehicle, where he remained until he was rescued by Wilkes-Iredell Fire Department members about 5:45 a.m.
Wilkes-Iredell Assistant Chief Kelly Welborn, first rescuer on the scene, said fire department members got close enough on foot to throw the man a rope and pull him to safety.
“There didn’t appear to be a scratch on him and he declined treatment at the scene,” said Welborn. “He was very fortunate.”
The driver of the late model Chevrolet, a Traphill resident, didn’t realize that Hunting Creek Road was washed out where it crosses a normally small tributary of Hunting Creek via a culvert until it was too late.
Welborn said the car plunged off the newly-severed asphalt roadway and into the raging floodwaters.
The car was swept over 100 feet downstream before lodging securely against small trees, facing upstream.
It was still lodged against the trees at mid-morning Nov. 12, with the front end heavily damaged and considerably lower than the back. The driver’s door was slightly open.
The driver was on his way to work at Cutting Systems Inc., located off N.C. 115 just beyond the Wilkes line in Iredell County, when the accident occurred. Welborn said the man wanted to go on to work that morning so firefighters took him.
Hunting Creek left its banks and turned bottomland fields along N.C. 115 and Hunting Creek Road into a small lake. Both roadways were flooded at multiple points.
The tributary of Hunting Creek that created the washout on Hunting Creek Road did the same nearby on gravel Cooter Hollow Road, temporarily cutting off people with homes on that dead-end, private road.
The tributary’s headwaters are in the Little Brushy Mountains, where over 6 inches of rain were reported Nov. 11 through early on the morning of Nov. 12.
Five to 5 ½ inches of rain were reported elsewhere in the Hunting Creek watershed, which includes the Brushy Mountains.
The N.C. Department of Transportation reported that there also were washouts due to high waters and failed culverts on Ingle Hollow Road (off Somers Road) and on Osborne Creek Road (off Old Rash Road and near Somers Road).
Mount Zion Road in western Wilkes and Hose Road in the Brushy Mountain community also had washouts.
A culvert-related washout also occurred on Piney Grove Road, which is off Absher Road in Traphill. Cedar Forest Road in Clingman remained closed as of Nov. 12 due to a washout during flooding two weeks ago.
A large Virginia pine fell across Hunting Creek Road and power lines about 5:30 a.m. Nov. 12, taking out a transformer and catching the tree on fire. The fire burned out without spreading to a nearby house, but an Energy United crew had to make repairs to restore electricity to the area.
North Wilkesboro commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to begin an upset bid process for selling the former Elks Lodge building and land off Finley Avenue after $200,000 was offered for the property.
The offer to purchase was from Scott D. Nafe, a businessman who bought and helped bring new life to several commercial and industrial properties in North Wilkesboro. Nafe made the offer in a Nov. 3 email to Town Manager Wilson Hooper.
Nafe stated in the email, “My current intent is to redevelop the property, saving the existing structure…(and converting it) to market-rate (nonsubsidized rental) apartments or for-sale condominiums.”
Nafe added, “There currently exists adequate land areas on the site for additional multi-family or condominium units. It is too beautiful a structure to be lost to this community.”
The former Elks Lodge, built in 1923 as home of industrialist P. Ward Eshelman and his family, is on a 4.2-acre parcel. It became the meeting and dining place for the North Wilkesboro Elks Club in 1955. An addition was completed in 1962, bringing the two-story brick building to 7,000 square feet of floor space. It’s bordered by Finley Avenue, Reynolds Avenue and Second Street.
Hooper said an advertisement of the opening bid of $200,000 and an explanation of the upset bid process would be published in the Nov. 18 issue of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot.
The next bid must be at least 5% greater than Nafe’s bid (at least $210,000) to successfully upset the $200,000 offer. If the town receives a bid of at least $210,000, it must advertise for an upset bid that exceeds that amount by at least 5% and so on.
With the upset bid process, the property can be sold to the highest bidder if a bid exceeding that amount by at least 5% isn’t received within the advertised period of time.
Hooper and Meredith Detsch, North Wilkesboro director of planning, said interest in the Elks Lodge property was recently received from other parties, in addition to Nafe. Hooper didn’t identify any other parties, but said their levels of interest vary.
The town purchased the property for $200,000 in 2016, partially as the possible site of new facilities for the North Wilkesboro police and fire departments. It has been unused since then. It was appraised for $230,000 in 2015, and its current tax value is $365,480.
Hooper noted, “The appraisal says that the building itself is of no real value and implies that the property may actually be worth more without the building.”
Nafe has redeveloped several properties in the town, including the former Key City Furniture factory, Carolina Mirror factory, American Drew furniture factory and Melody Square shopping center.
Also on Tuesday, the board:
• called for a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 8 regarding a draft ordinance establishing standards for nonresidential buildings and structures ordinance. Hooper said no changes have been made to the proposed ordinance as a result of public feedback so far;
• heard public comments from Kim Byrd about motor vehicles speeding on Sixth Street. Hooper told Byrd that speed deterrent measures were ongoing and that data would soon be analyzed by town staff and the N.C. Department of Transportation;
• approved an agreement for assistance in emergency situations between the N.C. Department of Public Safety, the Wilkes Correctional Center on Statesville Road and the Town of North Wilkesboro. The agreement makes town personnel available to help the prison with functions such as traffic control and supplements an existing agreement between the prison and the North Wilkesboro Police Department; and
• approved the reappointment of Stephen Gentry for a three-year term on the town’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
The Wilkesboro Town Council voted 3-1 Friday to purchase a bottomland parcel east of Oakwoods Road for a planned connection of Cub Creek Park to the Yadkin River Greenway.
The town agreed to buy the 41.2-acre parcel (ID 2206237) from Furches Evergreens Inc. for $175,000. The parcel is in the floodplain on both sides of Cub Creek as the creek flows east and then north toward the Wilkesboro Wastewater Treatment Plant and the creek’s junction with the Yadkin River, near where the connection with the greenway will be made.
Council member Nellie Archibald made the motion to purchase the property, after saying earlier in the two-day town retreat at the Wilkes Heritage Museum that it was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Councilmember Andy Soots said he agreed with Archibald.
Councilmember Russ Ferree also voted for the purchase, saying prior, “I think we have an opportunity to be known as a city of destination because of our parks and recreation. I’m tired of being known as a pass-by town. This feeds into our need for new jobs and quality of life. I want a greenway to bring that to this town.”
The vote of opposition was cast by Councilmember Jimmy Hayes, who said, “We don’t need it—that’s my opinion.”
The town has applied for a $255,000 N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant for half of the connector project. The town must match whatever grant amount is awarded.
The existing Cub Creek Park walking trail would connect with the greenway by passing underneath Oakwoods Road via a vehicular/pedestrian bridge planned for 2021, following Cub Creek until it joins with Little Cub Creek (Mill Creek), then continuing north under the East Main Street bridge below the treatment plant. The connection point would be at the eastern terminus of the Lowe’s Trailhead at Cornerstone Church in Wilkesboro.
The connection would link the 9.5 miles of greenway trails to the 8.3 miles of Cub Creek Park trails. This would be the first linking to trails beyond the park’s boundaries.
The 41.2 acres includes all of the bottomland between Edgewood Drive and Cub Creek and between gravel Rousseau Farm Road and Cub Creek. It also includes all of the bottomland between Rousseau Farm Road and Little Cub Creek to the eastern end of Rousseau Farm Road.
Also during the retreat, the council heard from town staff about the town’s options for the second phase of downtown revitalization that is planned to start in 2021. The first phase involved about $2 million invested in the Carolina West Wireless Community Commons and Heritage Square.
Phase two is planned to upgrade Main Street streetscape to match the design of the commons with public plazas, street trees, seating and planting areas, new lighting and signage. The second phase will also affect pedestrian, bike and vehicular connections, including from the Yadkin River Greenway to Cub Creek Park.
Bob Urness, Wilkesboro’s director of finance and assistant town manager, explained that the town could comfortably spend between $3 and $5 million on phase two, with the town taking out a 30- to 40-year low interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides such loans for rural economic development.
“When you think of phase two, with the involvement of Duke (Energy) and these utilities, it’s possible you’re funded within the next year but the project might not be done in five years,” said Urness. “We have the financial means to really consider whether it’s a best benefit for us.”
Town Manager Ken Noland said he told State Treasurer Dale Folwell during a recent phone conversation, “Wilkesboro’s finances are in great shape, and we’ve got big plans. I’m getting ready to ask you for $40 million for my utility fund (for expansion of the town’s raw water and waste water plants) and then I’m going to borrow $4 or $5 million potentially for the downtown, and we’re not done.”
Noland said of phase two improvements, “We’ve got the backbone to do it—our (utility) rates are there, our money is there. The town has the financial capacity.”
Town staff has prepared for phase two for several years, noted Noland. “Let’s come up with a (funding) number, and we’ll get done as much as we can. Prioritize, give us the number, then say, ‘go to work, guys.’ I don’t want the money to scare you; you just need to think about what you’d like your downtown to look like. What we’ve showed you is that even at the $5 million range, you’re pretty comfortable. We can make this work even with a little more than that.”
Urness said a preliminary engineering report on phase two would have to be commissioned before the council would be asked to approve a specific amount of funding for the project.
Noland told the council they didn’t have to wait for USDA funding before expanding the town’s system of sidewalks. He said the top priority is the extension of East Main Street across Oakwoods Road toward the town’s waste water treatment plant.
“I want to start putting sidewalks in the ground. The piece I would like to finish first is East Main, because we’ve fixed or replaced that sidewalk from Stokes Street to Oakwoods. We can do that last little bit fairly quick, get it done and make it look pretty over there.”
Noland said the expansion of sidewalk at the top of Curtis Bridge Road west toward the bridge over the Yadkin River will cost around $160,000. He also mentioned the sidewalk extension of Bridge Street to the Wilkes County Courthouse and out on N.C. 268 West to the Wilkes Family YMCA.
Urness said the total sidewalk work should amount to about $450,000.
Andrew Carlton, director of planning and community development, told the council that ground should be broke in January on an inclusive playground at the eastern end of Cub Creek Park. Construction should last about a year on the $300,000 project.
Funding is expected to come from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, which awards matching grants to local governments for parks and park improvements.
Phase one of the project includes an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant playground, modeled after Lebauer City Park in downtown Greensboro, and an ADA-approved fishing pier on Cub Creek south of the playground.
The council also gave direction to Carlton on the rebuilding of the town-owned “Rock Building” on North Bridge Street, also a 2021 project.
The building was constructed around 1935, before there was a town building code. The town bought it in 2016 for $225,000 and it was demolished earlier this year after engineers determined it was structurally unsound and had asbestos infestation.
The council decided the one-story building should contain eight restrooms, green space for musical artists and an open roof viewing area. Carlton estimated that such a building should cost between $250,000 and $300,000.
Noland told the council in summary, “The most exciting part of where we sit right now is the fruits of your labor that we’re seeing come to fruition. The businesses that have opened on and off Main Street, the housing that’s coming—what better testament that you’re doing the right thing. And then the (2020 community) survey tells us (residents) like what we’re doing. Don’t stop!”
A 75-megawatt solar farm proposed in the Antioch community cleared state regulatory hurdles but still has requirements to meet under the Wilkes County High Impact Land Use Ordinance.
The N.C. Utilities Commission granted Charlotte-based Wilkes Solar LLC a certificate of public convenience and necessity for the project in September after state agencies reviewed and okayed plans for the solar farm. Wilkes County Manager John Yates reviewed the plans on behalf of High Country Council of Governments.
Wilkes Solar said the facility is expected to cost $85 million to build and have a service life of 35 years, according to commission records. It will consist of an estimated 195,198 solar panels.
Commission records list 502 Robin Hill Road, North Wilkesboro (off Speedway Road) as the project’s address and say it will be on parts of 12 parcels totaling 1,014 acres leased or purchased. A project spokesman said about 600 acres will actually be used.
The records say Charlotte-based Solterra Partners LLC was the actual initial owner of the proposed solar farm, with Dennis A. Richter of Charlotte as registered agent of Wilkes Solar and Solterra Partners.
The current owner is New York, N.Y.-based DESRI Wilkes Solar Development LLC, according to an Oct. 30 filing with the commission.
The project spokesman said Thursday that options for leasing or buying the land needed have been obtained and “the project is still in development.” The spokesman said construction is planned to start by 2022, with a goal of starting operations by late 2022 or early 2023.
Under the Wilkes County High Impact Land Use (HILU) Ordinance, solar farms and certain other land uses need an Intent to Construct HILU permit before construction can start. The Wilkes Planning Department issued this to Wilkes Solar in March, indicating the plans met requirements of the ordinance.
Wilkes Planning Department Director Eddie Barnes said Wilkes Solar hasn’t applied for nor received the Operational HILU permit it needs to begin generating electricity. Under the ordinance, an Intent to Construct HILU permit is valid for a year and the operational permit can’t be issued by the planning department if it isn’t still valid.
Among other requirements, the ordinance says a solar energy farm or other identified high impact land use can’t be within 1,000 feet of an occupied home, educational facility, church or other “protected facility.” The 1,000 feet is measured from the center point of the property in question.
Utilities commission records show the 12 parcels include portions of eight to be leased, including part of the 524.50-acre Critcher Brothers Produce Inc. tract bordering Antioch Church Road near Antioch Baptist Church on the east and Robin Hill Road on the south.
About 207 of the 1,014 acres will be purchased, including the 164-acre Sale Land & Timber LLC tract adjoining the northern side of the Critcher Brothers tract and two nearby smaller parcels to provide access from Old Highway 60 on the north.
Adjoining the eastern side of the Sale tract are 76 acres owned by Duke Energy with an electrical substation and the intersection of two transmission lines. It is reached from Antioch Church Road, thus providing the Wilkes Solar project nearby access to the electrical grid.
Adjoining the western side of the Sale property is a 1.93-acre Duke Energy parcel that encompasses the end of Shew Ridge Mission Road.
In 2017, Wyoming-based Strom Energy (subsidiary of Florida-based Glauben Besitz LLC) filed an application with the commission for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for a $39 million, 20-megawatt solar farm on the 164-acre Sale tract. The project never materialized, but it was to be accessed via Shew Ridge Mission Road.
Duke Energy signed a power purchase agreement with Wilkes Solar for buying the proposed solar farm’s entire electricity output for 20 years, said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless. This will be added to the electrical grid and should be enough to power about 15,000 homes, he added.
Wheeless said the 20-year power purchase agreement was arranged under the N.C. Competitive Procurement of Renewable Energy Program. This bidding process, established by 2017 state legislation, considers cost-effectiveness of projects.
Wheeless said the 20-year period starts when the new solar farm begins producing electricity. At the end of the 20 years, he said, “the contract can be renewed for some period of time if both parties agree. Or, the site would be decommissioned, with panels and racking all recycled, and the land returned to a cleared state.”
Although the proposed project in the Antioch community would be among the largest solar farms in the state, Wheeless said more 75-megawatt and larger solar farms are being constructed because of the advantages of economies of scale.