Va. Court Backs Park Authority's Control of Trail

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, not Dominion Virginia Power, has control over the telecommunications lines that run along the 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion trail, land now in the heart of one of the nation's key telecommunications neighborhoods.

The decision Friday comes four years after the park authority filed a lawsuit seeking to clarify who has the right to millions of dollars in fees from companies who want to run communications lines under or above the trail.

The park authority has an annual budget of $12 million to $13 million a year, of which a total of $1 million comes from contracts with such companies as AT&T and Williams Communications Inc., whose lines run along the trail, and others that seek to cross the trail, said Paul Terpak, a Fairfax lawyer who represents the authority.

Terpak said the ruling is "enormously" important to the authority because it allows the agency to oversee companies that lease the lines -- including deciding what time of day they can work and whether they can park maintenance trucks that would block runners or riders on a trail used by 3 million people a year.

"It's the crown jewel of the regional park system," he said yesterday. "Also, we like the income."

Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien said the company would not comment on the court decision until officials had read it more thoroughly, and he would not comment on the history of the arrangement between the two sides.

Terpak said Dominion, which runs power lines beneath and over the trail, and the authority had worked together without significant problems for nearly 30 years.

The authority purchased the trail property from the company in 1977, when the telecommunications industry was beginning and the value of being able to lease lines in Northern Virginia wasn't so clear.

The wording of that deal -- the key issue in the lawsuit -- allowed Dominion to continue laying lines for its own business. It also said the authority could not give other companies use of the land "without the written approval of [Dominion], provided such approval not be withheld unreasonably."

In 2000, Dominion decided it wanted to negotiate with telecommunications customers to license its fiber optic transmission lines and created a sister company, Dominion Telecom, to do so.

The park authority challenged Dominion in Fairfax County Circuit Court, saying the company had the right to use lines for itself but not for lessees. Dominion countered that the 1977 agreement gave it the right to control the lines and profits.

The circuit court found that Dominion's "purported transfer" to Dominion Telecom of any right to install or use lines on the trail "exceeded" the company's rights under its easement.

Dominion Telecom was sold last year to Elantic Telecom Inc., which filed for bankruptcy a few months later.

Terpak said the Supreme Court decision, which upheld the circuit court's ruling, meant that Elantic was "trespassing" on the authority's land.

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