Facing complaints from Manassas residents, Virginia officials have agreed to reopen public hearings on Virginia Power's plans to build an overhead transmission line near the city's historic district.

The State Corporation Commission's decision to reopen the case comes nearly a year after public hearings were held and after considerable objection from residents who argued an overhead line would ruin the character of the historic area. Residents have proposed that Virginia Power bury the line, which company officials say is critical to serving the growing needs of Northern Virginia.

"I think that's what is called people power," Manassas City Council member Maury Gerson said of the campaign to persuade the commission to review the proposal.

"We're obviously very happy about this just now," said Rob Sturm, vice president of Historic Manassas, a nonprofit organization working for economic development and historic preservation in Old Town, "but we need to start fighting."

Historic Manassas led a protest of the overhead line after members said they were unaware of the first public hearings. The group helped gather 1,000 names on a petition requesting new hearings.

As proposed, Virginia Power's 230-kilovolt line would stretch 6 1/2 miles, beginning at an electrical substation in Clifton, where it has stirred opposition because of its potential impact on the environment. The line, to be installed atop 103-foot poles, would be more than 50 feet higher than the tallest building in Old Town.

The State Corporation Commission, which has jurisdiction over lines 200 kilovolts and above, recently received a staff recommendation to approve the line.

Virginia Power officials say burying the line for the stretch near Old Town would cost almost $5 million more than using an overhead line. Company spokesman James Norvelle said officials also are uncertain whether burying the line would be feasible.

"It's obvious it's an order and we're going to abide by it," Norvelle said of the corporation's decision to reopen the hearings.

Traditionally, the State Corporation Commission does not order underground lines unless other potential routes would place too great a cost burden on power company customers, who pay for construction projects through rates.

Only 15 to 16 miles of Virginia Power's 5,800 miles of transmission lines are underground, Norvelle said.

Virginia Power and Manassas officials said the proposed overhead line near Old Town would save money for both the company and the city.

Under the plan, Virginia Power would run the line down the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on the edge of the historic district in exchange for improving the city's electrical facilities to accommodate the line. The city would then drop its plans to build 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 its line five miles around the city.

The Manassas City Council has entered into legal agreements supporting the line's construction and cannot now oppose the plan without a breach of contract, according to City Attorney Robert Bendall. Some City Council members have said they now regret the decision to support the overhead line.

Historic Manassas and other groups have persuaded the council and local state legislators to write letters in an effort to get the hearings reopened.