The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has granted final approval for Dominion Energy to build a power transmission line across the James River near Jamestown, enabling a project that historic preservationists say would spoil a view little changed since Capt. John Smith helped found the nation’s first permanent English settlement there more than 400 years ago.
Richmond-based Dominion says the 500,000-volt line and 17 towers that will carry it across the James are needed because federal environmental regulations are forcing the shutdown of two coal-burning power plants in Yorktown. Without the new line, the utility said, the Peninsula region would not have reliable access to power.
But environmentalists have joined historians in opposing the project, arguing that in addition to changing the landscape, the giant towers would endanger a fragile population of river sturgeon that is struggling to make a comeback.
“There is only one Jamestown, and once development of this magnitude begins, there is no undoing its impacts,” Theresa Pierno of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association said Thursday after the Corps of Engineers approved the permit. “We cannot stand by and let that happen. We will continue to fight to protect historic Jamestown and are considering all options, including legal action.”
The line will require more than 40 transmission towers in the area, some nearly 300 feet tall.
Jamestown and its surroundings are a cradle of American history, the root of the English colonies that went on to become the United States.
The original fort at Jamestown, begun in 1607 and long thought lost beneath the waters of the river, has been unearthed in recent years, which led to a renewal of interest in the site. In 2019, the Virginia General Assembly plans a major event at Jamestown to mark the 1619 origins of the House of Burgesses and celebrate 400 years of representative democracy.
In a column published last year in the Richmond Times-
Dispatch, then-National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis objected to the power line project as “forever marring the river, the view and the setting that framed the experiences of this nation’s first settlers.”
He lamented that the power line would ruin something rare: the ability “to stand on that sacred ground at Jamestown and look downriver, feeling the isolation and challenges our first citizens experienced. If the proposed power line moves forward, that historic view will be overrun with towers, power lines and blinking lights.”
Dominion said it considered several other locations for the line but found that the current one — just south of Jamestown, running from Surry County to a spot in James City County near Carters Grove Plantation — would be the least disruptive. The utility also said the towers crossing the river should not be visible from the Jamestown site.
The Corps of Engineers said it considered 23 alternatives, including burying the line under the river.
“We believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a diligent and thorough review,” Dominion spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said. She said the permit allows construction to begin on the line leading up to the river crossing.
The utility agreed to take steps to limit the environmental impact, such as doing construction work during times of year when sturgeon are not spawning.
Dominion also agreed to a design that uses the fewest towers possible and to paint them in a way that minimizes their appearance.
The Virginia Marine Resources Commission also approved the project this week despite hundreds of letters and emails in opposition, as well as testimony from some 25 people at a public hearing.
The next step is a public hearing July 11 at the James City County Board of Supervisors for a permit to build the switching station that connects to the line, Harris said.