Update: Dominion Virginia is still aggressively pursuing this plan. Join us at Change.org and sign this petition urging them to reconsider their plans to ruin this view.
The following editorial appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on April 17, 2013. Elizabeth Kostelny is the Executive Director of Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit organization and statewide historic preservation leader. Leighton Powell is our Executive Director here at Scenic Virginia.
Virginia’s abundance of historic places, scenic views and natural resources is internationally renowned. Each year, that richness draws people to the commonwealth to live, work and play.
Nowhere is that more evident than in our Historic Triangle and Tidewater regions. Sadly, the exceptional resources of those areas are in jeopardy.
Following the scheduled decommissioning of its coal-fired Yorktown and Chesapeake Power Stations, Dominion Virginia is proposing to maintain (and expand) its power supply in the north Hampton Roads area with a large-scale transmission line called the Surry-Skiffes Project. Two potential routes were suggested, and each would have devastating impacts on the surroundings: the first on the Chickahominy River and its plentiful natural, scenic and historic assets; the second on the James River and its equally significant resources.
The utility’s preferred plan appears to be high-voltage (500kV) transmission lines atop 16 towers crossing 4.1 miles of pristine James River in James City County. Ranging in height from 160’ to 295’ (10 feet lower than the Statue of Liberty), the towers would be adorned with strobe lights that pulse in the night. Located near the proposed towers are such significant historic and scenic sites as Carter’s Grove Plantation (on the National Register of Historic Places), the Colonial Parkway (which is a designated National Scenic Byway) and Jamestown Island’s Black Point, each with a viewshed that has been preserved much the same since the colonists’ first arrival. For recreational boaters retracing the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail — along, by the way, a section of a designated Virginia State Scenic River — these towers would dominate the experience.
Certainly, electric service is needed to support a growing population. And, obviously, we cannot hope to save every piece of history and scenic beauty. But we can — and must — advocate for the most positive outcome possible: adequate energy delivered in a way that respects our most significant historic, scenic and natural attributes — resources that stimulate Virginia’s economy, attract visitors from across the globe and lure in potential new residents interested in surrounding themselves with history. It matters what happens to them.
“Once our most exquisite historic and scenic places have been marred or destroyed, there is no turning back.”
Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) is wrestling with this very situation right now. The SCC regulates the commonwealth’s utilities and so must approve a proposal before a utility can proceed. James City County and other participants, including the James River Association and Save the James Alliance, have filed as interveners in the current SCC case. The SCC hearing examiner began the evidentiary phase of the case on April 9. The multi-day hearing is convening experts on both sides to present and rebut filed testimony.
That said, it’s difficult to rebut or respond to what you don’t know. Much of the utility’s information about the project was deemed too “sensitive” to be released publicly prior to the hearing, making it impossible for groups like ours who consider ourselves bridge-builders to be as effective as we might be. This absence of complete data impairs decision-making and undermines the entire public process. As a result, critical decisions about Virginia’s irreplaceable assets are being made in the dark. (Irony noted.)
Preservation Virginia and Scenic Virginia, along with the Chesapeake Bay Conservancy, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, The Garden Club of Virginia and Virginia Conservation Network, call upon Dominion to work with the localities along this region of the James River for a better solution. We urge the SCC commissioners to consider alternatives that would meet the needs for electric service to the area while respecting its extraordinary historic, scenic and natural resources.
This situation is not unique to this region. It will occur again and again as utilities seek ways to expand. What it requires is thoughtful leadership, creative thinking and the understanding that our historic, natural and scenic assets contribute significantly to the economic, educational and cultural health of our commonwealth.
During the opening remarks last week, we heard the word “reasonable” again and again in the testimony, e.g., “lowest reasonable cost,” “reasonable speed for project completion,” etc. If you ask us, it’s reasonable to preserve Virginia’s extraordinary historic and scenic assets that distinguish us from every other place, and to expect those in charge do everything possible to achieve this outcome.
Virginia is unique. It deserves special considerations. Let’s recognize that, and let’s act now to find solutions. Once our most exquisite historic and scenic places have been marred or destroyed, there is no turning back. We will have failed the Old Dominion, and that will really leave us in the dark.