The Manassas City Council Monday night voted to write a letter to the State Corporation Commission advising the commission of citizens' opposition to Virginia Power plans to install a large overhead transmission line near the southern edge of Manassas's historic district.

The council was given copies of a stack of petitions, signed by more than 600 citizens, requesting the SCC to reopen public hearings on Virginia Power's proposed 230-kilovolt line. The citizens want the line buried the quarter mile it runs alongside Old Town.

The SCC has jurisdiction over lines 200 kilovolts and above. If the SCC follows its staff's recent recommendation to approve the plans, the line would run from an electrical facility near Clifton, and, with the city's consent, into Manassas along the Norfolk Southern railroad corridor.

Critics of the proposal, who have said they were unaware of SCC public hearings on the line last winter, argue that the installation of the line on 103-foot poles -- twice the height of all buildings in Old Town -- would be unsightly and detrimental to Old Town's economic development. It also would set a dangerous precedent for running large overhead lines through or near historic districts in Virginia, opponents said.

"We can't surrender the obligation we have as the council to bring forward the views of our citizens," said council member Robert L. Browne. He and Mayor John Weber will draft the letter and return it to the council for final approval this week.

"I think we can consider this a victory," said Don Wine, president of Historic Manassas Inc., a nonprofit organization working for historic preservation and economic development in Old Town. "I hope it will be effective."

The council's action followed a three-hour meeting last week with citizens and officials of the utility, in which both city and Virginia Power attorneys said the council is legally bound to support the project because of earlier endorsements of it.

The council approved a letter of intent in the fall of 1988 and a letter of agreement in fall 1989 allowing the utility to run the line down the railroad tracks in exchange for upgrading the city's electrical facilities to accommodate the larger line.

The project appeared to be a good deal for both the city and the power company.

The city, which has its own electrical distribution system, could drop its plans to construct a $1.5 million 115-kilovolt transmission line along the same route.

Virginia Power could avoid paying $13 million to $16 million more to run the line an additional five miles around the city.

Virginia Power said the line is crucial to meeting the electrial needs of Northern Virginia and that it is prepared to begin construction.

City Attorney Robert Bendall said the utility already has met certain stipulations in the letter of agreement "thereby, in my opinion, creating a legal, valid, binding obligation between the city and" Virginia Power.

Council member Maury Gerson, speaking at last week's meeting, said, "I think had we known or seen the ramifications of this {line} two years ago," Virginia Power would not be going through the city. ". . . This is embarrassing for me and other members of council."

On Monday, Bendall called the council's initial proposal to submit a formal request to the SCC to reopen public hearings "a political motion." Bendall warned, "There is potential for {a claim for} damages" if the utility perceives the request as a breach of contract.

Burying the line for the quarter mile alongside Old Town would cost $5.4 million, Virginia Power officials said. Keeping it overhead would cost $800,000. Most construction costs are worked into the rates.

According to Gerson, Bendall also advised the council last week that a letter could be inconsistent with the letter of agreement. Bendall declined to comment on the council's decision to write the letter.

At last week's meeting, Virginia Power said it could do several things to lessen the visual impact of the line, including widening the distance between the poles, which usually are placed about 400 feet apart.

In addition to council and citizen efforts to get the SCC to consider the potential impact of the overhead lines, state legislators also have agreed to pitch in.

Last Friday, Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas) said he and Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) would "be glad" to request the SCC reopen public hearings on the line and to consider ordering the utility to bury the line, but only if the "council asked us to." Colgan, however, was pessimistic about any last-minute requests to the SCC to consider proposals for burying the line. "I just don't think the SCC will go along with a $5 million bill to the ratepayers of Virginia," he said.