When she first learned about the James River power-line plan, Margaret Nelson Fowler was, well, shocked.
Dominion Virginia Power was proposing to run a 500,000-volt transmission line over the James, cutting across the same stretch of river that some of the first English settlers navigated in 1607 before landing at Jamestown.
The line would cross America’s founding waterway on at least nine towers, four of them ranging in height from 275 to 295 feet, or nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty.
The thought of being able to see them from the tip of Jamestown Island or along Colonial Parkway made the historical hairs on Fowler’s neck stand up.
“This incredible and important viewshed looks almost exactly like it did the day Capt. John Smith sailed up the river,” said Fowler, a retired money manager, during a morning drive along the James. “It’s been pristine for 400 years. You look at the proposal, and it’s like, What are you thinking?”
According to Dominion officials, it’s simple: The utility, which has a decades-old nuclear power plant across from Jamestown Island, needs to expand grid capacity and improve reliability in the Hampton Roads region. The company’s planners have determined that an overhead crossing downriver from Jamestown is the most sensible option.
Fowler — who loves modernity (she’s forever on her iPad) but holds early American history dear — is digging in. She has enlisted in the Save the James Alliance, a new unit in the growing army of opponents of Dominion’s proposal.
“This place is sacred,” she declared. “It’s worth fighting for.”
In this modern Battle of Williamsburg, though, there is no blood — just pronouncements, paperwork and, soon, public testimony. The commonwealth’s State Corporation Commission, which will render a decision on the proposal, is holding two hearings Wednesday at Williamsburg’s Warhill High School.
With the hearings looming, the historic area’s heavy hitters are weighing in. This month, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the College of William and Mary and Preservation Virginia issued a joint letter denouncing the plan on historic and economic grounds.
On Thursday, Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman sent his own letter to the State Corporation Commission, saying the city “is deeply concerned over the irreparable damage to nationally and internationally significant historic and cultural resources which would result from permanently marring the viewshed along this segment of the James River.”
Put the line under the river, urged the James City County Board of Supervisors in a resolution adopted in April.
The utility says that’s not a viable option. It would be nearly impossible to submerge a 500,000-volt line in the James, it says. A pair of 230,000-volt lines might be possible, though unreliable, Dominion says, but that setup would drive up the project’s price from $60 million to at least $310 million.
“Dominion is sensitive to the concerns raised by all stakeholders and has been a longtime supporter in numerous ways to the Historic Triangle and its associated organizations,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins said in a written statement. “We also have an obligation to provide reliable electric service to our nation’s critical military facilities, businesses, and residential customers in the area. We believe this route is the shortest, least expensive and least environmentally impactful while meeting the electrical needs.”
Fights over development plans around historic sites are old hat in Virginia. There seems to be a brawl involving Bull Run every few years, whether it’s about a proposal to put a mall on the old Civil War battlefield in the Manassas area or the unsuccessful attempt by the Walt Disney Co. to build an American history theme park in the same area.
You can’t escape the past, not that anyone is trying to around here. Drive through the exclusive Kingsmill community in Williamsburg and you’ll cross countless streets named after early colonists. On the way to Carter’s Grove, the 472-acre plantation where the Wolstenholme Towne settlement once stood, you’ll pass a new development called Pocahontas Square.
There are historic landmarks all over the area. Not for nothing is the Jamestown-Williamsburg-Yorktown area known as the Historic Triangle.
But the present is ever-present here, too: Signs of modern society are visible everywhere, including from the James River itself.
From Black Point, on the eastern tip of Jamestown Island, you can gaze across the winding river at Mach Tower, a gravity-drop ride that soars 240 feet into the sky at Busch Gardens. The domes at the Surry Power Station are visible from the Colonial Parkway, the scenic National Park Service road that connects Jamestown with Yorktown via Williamsburg.
Military helicopters on training missions buzz overhead day and night. From the million-dollar riverfront homes at Kingsmill, on clear a day, you can make out the mothballed James River Reserve Fleet near Newport News.
“From a purist’s point of view, we would love to have the whole vista be pristine, like what they’ve done at [Thomas Jefferson’s] Monticello” said Colin Campbell, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “But you have to live with what’s done. And transmission lines across the river would be considerably more intrusive.”
An overhead power line would industrialize a hallowed part of the country’s cultural heritage, he said. And it would jeopardize Colonial Williamsburg’s effort to have the Historic Triangle recognized as a World Heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a designation that often comes with a bonanza of tourists and tourist dollars.
As it happens, Colonial Williamsburg has an important, if conflicted, ally at the utility. Thomas F. Farrell II, chief executive of Dominion Virginia’s parent company, Dominion Resources, is also chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s board of trustees. But Farrell has recused himself on the issue, according to Dominion and Colonial Williamsburg representatives, and he declined to be interviewed for this article.
As a corporate citizen, Dominion has long funded preservation projects and programs around the Historic Triangle.
During the Jamestown quadrennial in 2007, the company even produced an advertisement noting its commitment of more than $1 million to help preserve historic Jamestown. The ad featured an image of a tall ship sailing up the James River. “With this project and many others like it,” the copy read, “Dominion is protecting our natural and historic resources for generations to come.”
According to Dominion, a new, 500,000-volt transmission line from the Surry Power Station became necessary when the utility decided to shut down several coal-fired stations across the state to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards. The company also projected a need for additional capacity in the northern Hampton Roads area by 2019.
The utility’s planners came up with various route proposals — including one in a less historically sensitive area that also met opposition — before settling on what is known as the Surry-Skiffes Creek plan.
“We work really, really hard to avoid controversy,” said Scot C. Hathaway, Dominion’s vice president of electric transmission. “If there’s a way to more elegantly solve an underlying need and to avoid controversy, by all means, we’ll do it. Who wouldn’t avail themselves to those solutions?”
But other possible routes were too long, expensive and otherwise problematic, according to Dominion. The utility says that the line, as proposed, would sit as far downriver from Jamestown Island as possible without encroaching on Felker Army Airfield and Joint Base Langley-Eustis. Putting it underwater wouldn’t work.
“It’s a tough problem that we’re trying to solve,” Hathaway said.
Dominion currently has two transmission lines crossing the James River. But they’re miles from Jamestown Island, and opponents of the new Dominion plan say this section of the lower James is different.
“This was the beginning,” archaeologist William Kelso said. He was standing next to a dig site at James Fort, which he discovered years earlier. It was drizzling, so there was a tarp over the dirt. British flags marking the boundaries of the fort flapped in the wind. A statue of John Smith stood at the edge of the fort, looking over the water that was Smith’s gateway to America, back when it was still the Powhatan River.
“He’s contemplating this pristine view,” Kelso said.
The proposed power line, however, would not be visible from Fort James or most other points on Jamestown Island, because of the way the river winds. But that it would be visible at all within the Historic Triangle is deeply troubling, Kelso said.
“Progress is important. I like electricity,” he said. “But you have to have your priorities. You have to draw the line somewhere.”
A short time later, Fowler, of the Save the James Alliance, stopped at a scenic lookout on Colonial Parkway. It was just beyond Jamestown Island, with a clear view down the river. “Gosh, isn’t it lovely?” she said. “It’s a favorite place for tourists to pull over.”
An orientation map was near the road. “Colonists Route to Jamestown,” it said. There were three ships on the map, sailing up the channel. It was 1607 again, and the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery were coming around the tip of Hog Island to America.
The transmission-line route cuts right through the third ship on the map, Fowler said. “The towers would be visible all the way from here, about three miles away. Of all the places they could put a power line — I mean, could you have picked a worse one?”
Her group, the Save the James Alliance, is mostly made up of Kingsmill homeowners. Some members have majestic riverfront views that would be marred by the transmission-line towers. The Save the James Web site links to a study about the effect of power lines on property values. (Summary: Not good.)
Fowler, whose house is set back from the river, with no water view, acknowledged the “not in my back yard” sentiment among some opponents. “But I’m involved for the Colonial NIMBY argument,” she huffed. “This is the birthplace of America’s back yard!”
Her initial shock over Dominion’s proposal has turned to disgust. Power to the people — just not here.
“You wouldn’t put something like this in the Grand Canyon. You wouldn’t do this at Monticello or Mount Vernon. There are just some places where modernity needs to be kept in abeyance. This is one of them.”