Preservation Group Seeks To Shield East Coast Land

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2007

The National Trust for Historic Preservation plans to declare a large swath of the East Coast's most historic land as among the most imperiled in the country because it could one day be crisscrossed by high-voltage power lines.

The area, which spans seven states, including Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia, will be on the group's list of the nation's 11 most endangered historical sites. This is the Washington-based group's 20th annual list, and it will be unveiled officially at the National Press Club this morning.

"Across the United States, there are still places of great character, where historic family farms stand next to hallowed Civil War battlegrounds, where 18th-century white clapboard churches decorate scenic byways, where neighbors have fought to preserve their heritage and quality of life," the group said in a statement.

The states "are waging battles to protect everything that's irreplaceable about their communities," the statement continues, as utility companies seek to erect miles of transmission lines to connect rural power plants to urban areas, where demand for electricity is high.

In April, the U.S. Department of Energy declared the grid for the mid-Atlantic region so inadequate that companies will have special rights to build power lines without state approval.

The announcement sparked an outcry from residents and lawmakers, who are hoping to persuade Congress to revoke those rights. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) are seeking to amend an energy bill this week to block implementation of the federal program.

In response to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list, Dominion Virginia Power officials said yesterday that they were committed to keeping history in mind when plotting out the routes for power lines.

"The code of Virginia requires that Dominion consider any cultural or historic or environmentally sensitive sites when we propose a transmission line, and we believe we have done this," said Dominion spokeswoman Le-Ha Anderson.

Dominion is hoping to build a 65-mile power line through Northern Virginia, and has faced community opposition over fears it will ruin the landscape and sink property values. This year, the company abandoned a plan to run the line through sensitive parts of Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties.

A proposed line by American Electric Power and Allegheny Power would span about 300 miles, beginning in West Virginia. The line would run northeast through West Virginia's scenic Allegheny Highlands to a substation to be built near Damascus. Although the specific route has not been determined, it could pass by the Antietam National Battlefield, where 23,000 soldiers were killed in the Civil War.

Fifteen-story steel poles strung together by cables could do irreparable harm to those sites, said Robert Nieweg, director of the preservation group's southern field office.

"The line of towers along the countryside will cause a kind of visual pollution, an industrial-style blight on a countryside that deserves more careful treatment," Nieweg said.

Some of the area covered in today's announcement has been featured in earlier lists by the group. In 2005, the group deemed endangered a 175-mile stretch of road from Gettysburg National Military Park to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, which threads through Civil War-era towns and battlefields and faces a threat from suburban sprawl.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company