This is the sixth installment in our Main Street NC series from the WUNC Politics Podcast. We’re visiting communities across the state to hear from local leaders about the positives going on in their towns, and the challenges they face, from population loss to flooding to aging utility infrastructure.
Around the clock, a strange sound emanates from a cluster of metal shipping containers behind a fence in what was once a cornfield. The constant hum drowns out the birds and the other sounds you’d expect to hear in a rural area surrounded by mountains.
One of the state’s only cryptocurrency mining operations is located a few miles outside Murphy at North Carolina’s far-western tip.
And it’s driving the neighbors crazy.
Even at a house a mile away, the sound can make it seem like you’re next to a busy freeway. It comes from massive computer servers that are running the complex computations needed to power cryptocurrency. Just like the hard drive on your personal computer, these servers need fans to keep from overheating.
And when you have this much computing power in a sunny field, those big fans put off a lot of noise.
The people who moved to this mountain community for the peace and quiet have been fighting the mining operation for several years now without much success.
Tom Lash lives less than a half-mile up the hill from the site. He didn’t get any advance warning that the cryptomine was coming.
“The thing was brought in undercover,” Lash said. “Even when they were laying out the power lines, we had to pry the information out of the workers. They were sworn to secrecy, as were the county officials. Nobody would admit to anything.”
The constant sound is something he never expected when he and his wife moved here a few years ago.
“We had no idea,” Lash said. “We bought this place because of the location, the safety and the lack of people around us. That was just a cornfield full of deer. There wasn’t anything.”
The cryptocurrency firm was likely attracted to Cherokee County because of the cheap electricity — the Tennessee Valley Authority operates several massive hydroelectric dams nearby. The Hiwassee Dam near Murphy was built in the 1930s to bring electricity to a remote region of the mountains, and it’s the tallest dam structure in the eastern U.S.
Locals like Lash suspect that the cryptomines are popular with electric utilities like the TVA, and that could be why efforts to regulate the facilities haven’t gone far at the state and federal levels.
“If you go to a TVA meeting, you’ll find out that they have so much power, and it’s all about the money, and they don’t care who buys the electricity as long as somebody buys it,” Lash said.
The cryptomines – and what to do about them – is a hot topic of conversation wherever you go in Murphy, from the taproom of Buck Bald Brewing to the coffee bar at Rare Bird Emporium. That’s a popular gift shop where locals start their day with lattes and cinnamon donuts.
It’s been hard to find a solution everyone can agree on. Zoning regulations aren’t popular here, and a noise ordinance might interfere with the loud activities people enjoy – from racing cars to shooting guns. It’s a conservative county where President Donald Trump won 77% of the vote in 2020.
Chainsaw wood carving art is one of those not-so-quiet things that makes Cherokee County unique. It’s among the first things you see when you drive into the county from Tennessee on U.S. Highway 64, just past the sign that tells you you’re only 563 miles from Manteo on the other end of North Carolina.
This remote location is where Dan “Chill” Sullivan and his wife Jenny set up their workshop in a former country store. The whimsical creations at Chill-a-While Chainsaw Carving include eight-foot-tall statues of characters from Where The Wild Things Are and Little Shop of Horrors.
The chainsaw art has become a draw in a rural county that’s seeing more retirees and tourists escaping to the less crowded end of North Carolina’s mountains.
“We got a lot of locals and a lot of new people moving up from all over the place, as far away as Oregon,” Sullivan said. “We’re as busy as we want to be, we think.”
To learn more about how Murphy and Cherokee County are charting a future that brings more tourists while keeping out noisy cryptomines, WUNC stopped by the 1927 Cherokee County Courthouse in downtown Murphy to talk with County Commissioner Ben Adams.
NOTE: This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Was there any advance notice of what the impacts from cryptomining would be? Did anyone here really have a sense for what this was or what it was going to be like?
“One moved into Marble, North Carolina (east of Murphy), which is the biggest one here. It is massive, it took up one of our old plants. When it moved in here, it was indoors, it wasn’t near as loud, and there wasn’t a whole lot of issues.
“But then when that one moved in that everyone’s concerned about on Harshaw Road, it moved in extremely loud, close to residents. It didn’t have any sound barriers whatsoever around it. I live a quarter mile away the way a crow flies, over mountains, and on cold mornings, I could hear it running from my front door. When it first started, we thought it was road noise, and then we’re like, ‘no, that’s a constant sound.’”
Did the county have any say in the matter when the construction was first permitted?
“We’re actually one of the only counties still in North Carolina with no zoning laws. So with no zoning laws, it pretty much leaves the door open for whatever wanted to come in here. Since I was elected, we have come up with some land-use ordinances to keep certain things out, and one of those is the Bitcoin mines, because that’s one reason they all looked here.”
It sounds like creating zoning regulations was sort of a non-starter for a lot of folks. Were there concerns about unintended consequences if you did that? Would you then be putting some burdens on people that they might not expect?
“I’m not a fan of it, because if it’s your land, you should be able to do what you want. I’ve always said, if I want to put a pig farm on my property, I should be able to put a pig farm on my property. No one wants to be told what they can and can’t do on their property, and we were all in agreement with that. So that’s where we said, ‘OK, what can we do that doesn’t affect that?’”
So now it’s sort of a county-wide regulation of ‘these are a few things that you can’t do anywhere in the county’?
“That’s why we chose land use, because you’re not limiting people to what they can do on their own property. You’re just limiting the hurtful stuff that could come into this county. In our meeting, people showed up even opposed to land use. And I told them, ‘Well, I’ve been here my whole life, and these are the five things we want to keep out.’”
Can anything be done about the existing noise problem with the site that everyone’s up in arms about?
“There’s really nothing we can do with the ones that are there. We can prevent them from increasing their footprint or adding anything else. It was brought up that we do a noise ordinance. We had a public hearing on it, and it was unbelievable the number of people that do not want a noise ordinance.
“Once again, it goes back to our conservative, freedom-loving American values that we don’t want to be told if we’re too loud. Usually we have the good neighbor rule: if your neighbor’s loud, you call them up and say ‘hey, man, yeah, something’s going on here. Can you quiet it down?’”
Do the cryptomining operations bring many jobs, or is it mostly automated?
“The one on Harshaw Road hasn’t brought hardly any jobs. I believe the one out in Marble probably has about 10 to 15 employees, so they don’t bring in a lot of money that way. Their property taxes don’t bring in a lot of money. The one on Harshaw hasn’t paid theirs in two years. They have one more year, and then it goes into foreclosure.”
Is there a need for any sort of state or federal action to create some additional regulations that maybe you don’t have the ability to do at the county level?
“We passed a resolution to our state and federal representatives just trying to get them on board to pass some type of legislation that would help with this problem. And of course, it fell upon deaf ears. I was always told as a kid by my grandpa, ‘the two strongest men in the world is the man that controls the water and the man that controls the power.’ Who knows how much money they’re making off these, so it’s not going to be very high on the list.”
Switching gears to some other hot topics in Cherokee County: You’ve been fighting the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s plan to build a roundabout on one of Murphy’s biggest highways. What are some of the concerns you have with that?
“None of the citizens want it. This would be the only roundabout on the four-lane between here and Raleigh. Basically, the way that we feel with the DOT on this subject is that ‘we know nothing, they know everything, we’re going to do what we want, you don’t have a say-so.’ We’ve talked to everybody we can speak to about this. It seems like that they have it in their crosshairs that are going to do it regardless of what we say, and to us that is not democracy.”
Is it harder, as far as you guys are from the state capital, to get political muscle to embrace some of the concerns people have in this area?
“Our representatives (in the N.C. General Assembly) are great. They gave us over $3 million in grants this year to build a senior center and veterans center, and we couldn’t do it without them. But yes, we do get overlooked out here. There’s a rolling joke, and everybody here knows it: North Carolina stops at Asheville, it doesn’t come past there.”
There’s been some advocacy for how to revamp a closed campground in the Hanging Dog area of the county, and there was a proposal to make that a state park and get some state resources (the nearest state park is two hours to the east), but that idea might not be viable?
“It’s probably not going to happen. (State officials) are trying to tell us it will take $20 million to open it. I don’t know who does their math or who does their purchasing, but it would not take nowhere near that. And there are people who would step up and say they would volunteer to run it … but it seems like that they just don’t listen.”
Murphy is home to a casino owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, and casinos have been a hot topic in the past year at the state legislature with a proposal to put them in other rural areas of the state. What’s been the experience here in Cherokee County since the casino opened?
“It’s brought in a lot of jobs. But as far as saying ‘has your town got better because of the casino?’ Tourism has picked up, we have increased our tax revenue. One of the big salesman’s thing was ‘we’re gonna get a restaurant, we’re gonna get some good restaurants,’ and nothing. We wish they would build a concert hall where we could have some concerts.”