By Michael D. Shear and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
RICHMOND, Feb. 12 -- Dominion Virginia Power has decided to build its new high-voltage transmission line along the path of existing electric cables in Northern Virginia's outer suburbs, sources said Monday night, bypassing pristine land where opposition to the company's plans has been fiercest.
Company officials will seek permits to build the 500,000-volt line far south of the original route that cut across sparsely developed and protected forest and farmland in Prince William, Loudoun and Fauquier counties, according to legislative sources familiar with the company's decision. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because Dominion has not made the decision public.
The new path would require construction of 15-story towers along a more southerly route in Fauquier as well as in part of Culpeper and Prince William that has Dominion power lines. The path would aim to avoid nature preserves, historic districts, a half-dozen Civil War battlefields and untouched land protected by conservation easements.
The change would lengthen the route by 28 miles and add about $60 million to its cost, which the company would pass along to its ratepayers. The decision is intended to appease many of its most vocal critics, including Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and local lawmakers, who had urged respect for the region's land.
"That's probably the most favorable alternative," said Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who fought the company's original proposal. "That's not going to please everyone, but it's probably going to solve the problem."
Dominion, which serves most of Northern Virginia, says a new line is needed to satisfy the region's swelling appetite for power, which is expected to grow 8 percent over the next five years The line has met resistance from residents, conservationists and politicians, who say it would mar some of the state's most precious countryside. They have also said there are ways to meet the increased power demand without building a new line.
News of the decision was met with skepticism by the harshest critics of Dominion's power line, including U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and the Piedmont Environmental Council, a conservation group.
Spokesmen for both said they remain unconvinced that the power line is needed and believe Dominion's proposed solution simply moves the problem from one place to another. "Their whole strategy is divide and conquer," said Wolf's chief of staff, Dan Scandling. "Dominion still hasn't proven that this power is needed for Northern Virginia."
Piedmont Environmental Council spokesman Robert W. Lazaro Jr. said running the new line along an existing right of way does not protect nearby homeowners from transmission lines that he expects to be significantly taller than existing ones.
He also wondered whether the existing path was wide enough to accommodate the new line or additional private property would have to be acquired.
"The fact is the state has a failed energy policy," Lazaro said. "Dominion is a huge player in the politics of this state and is able to run roughshod over consumers and responsible legislators."
Dominion Vice President Robert M. Blue declined to comment Monday night about the company's plans for the transmission line.
The company had described its original plan to erect towers and cables across the western suburbs as necessary because of Virginia's population growth. The line would be part of a larger one that stretches from southwestern Pennsylvania to Loudoun County. Dominion officials have said the line would power 275,000 homes in Northern Virginia and reduce stress on electricity systems across the mid-Atlantic region. Critics have said Dominion wants to move cheap power from the Midwest to markets in the East.
In the months since the initial proposal, environmentalists and residents near the proposed path of the line have waged a multimillion-dollar campaign against the company and persuaded lawmakers to introduce legislation to block the line from their property.
Dominion's lobbyists have beaten back those bills. But the company has continued to talk with lawmakers about how to respond to the concerns. If approved by the State Corporation Commission, the new power lines would be constructed only where the company has strung cables.
Eva Tieg Hardy, one of the company's top executives, visited Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) on Monday to discuss the announcement, which is likely to be made in a news release. Potts and Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun) worked closely with Dominion to broker a deal intended to place less hardship on property owners.
May said Monday night that Dominion is simply moving the problem from one neighborhood to another. But he said he was willing to work with the utility because he disagrees with critics' premise that more power is not needed.
May, an advocate for pushing Dominion to bury future power lines, believes working amicably with the company now will make that goal more likely. "The real problem is whether or not we're going to be able to get them underground," May said. "If we're not, these battles are going to continue forever."