Supreme Court Sends James River Power Line Decision Back to JCC is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.

The green line across the James River represents where the over-river line would be built. The blue line represents another proposed line that would run from James City County to Hampton. (Photo courtesy Dominion Virginia Power)
The green line across the James River represents where the over-river line would be built. The blue line represents another proposed line that would run from James City County to Hampton. (Photo courtesy Dominion Virginia Power)

The Supreme Court of Virginia issued a ruling Thursday saying a proposed route for a power line across the James River near Carter’s Grove would not cause too much damage to historic assets in the area, but the ruling may still prove a challenge for the line.

While the justices affirmed the position held by Dominion Virginia Power and the State Corporation Commission that the line would not unreasonably affect historic assets like Carter’s Grove, Jamestown Island and the Colonial Parkway, they agreed with James City County that it had the power to regulate the zoning of land in Grove where the utility wants to build a switching station to connect to the line.

In its analysis of the project, the SCC argued the switching station — which is needed to link the line to Dominion’s power network on the Peninsula — is a transmission line and thus not subject to local zoning rules. James City County argued the station was not a line but instead a “facility,” meaning it is subject to zoning rules.

The court sided with James City County on that argument, meaning the county’s board of supervisors will have the final say over whether the switching station can be built at that location.

WYDaily contacted James City County for comment regarding the ruling, however the county had not yet responded by the time the article published.

Despite the decision to send the switching station question to James City County, the utility issued a statement Thursday saying it was “pleased” with the court’s ruling.

“[Dominon is] continuing to move forward with construction plans for this critical infrastructure so that reliable electric service in the region can be maintained,” the statement says. “We will continue to assess our multiple options regarding the switching station portion of the transmission line.”

In a news release issued Thursday, Dominion said it will continue to move forward with plans to construct the line.

“There is an undeniable fact that there is an urgent need to deliver more energy to the Peninsula and the court has affirmed that the State Corporation Commission has chosen the best option,” Robert M. Blue, the president of Dominion, said in the release.

The ruling was also celebrated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has spearheaded a campaign of nonprofit groups opposed to the line. That campaign, called the Down to the Wire Coalition, seeks to educate the public about how the proposed line would affect the area.

“For us, this is a win,” said Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel for NTHP. “We’re happy that the court decided that the state corporation commission exceeded its authority in permitting a switching station. What it means is that the decision is going to go to James City County and put it into the zoning review process, and that means that the county will have an opportunity to weigh the various pros and cons of it and reach hopefully the right decision.”

Jameson Brunkow, the lower James River keeper for James River Association — one of the groups that filed the appeal of the line to the supreme court — called the ruling a “partial win.”

“We were successful in one of the arguments, so we’re certainly pleased that James City County, one of our partners in raising this appeal, is now going to have this opportunity to run this project through the proper channels and do a full review of the historic, scenic and environmental impacts this project would have on the county,” he said.

Jim Zinn, a trustee with the Save the James Alliance, said his group “won the battle” but not the war. He said he is hopeful that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must also greenlight the project, will order a full environmental impact study to better determine how the line would affect the area.

The utility is still waiting for approval to build the line from the USACE, which has not said when it will issue a decision about the application to build the line.

The utility wants to build a line from a switching station near Surry Nuclear Power Station that would cross the James River and come ashore near Carter’s Grove, where it would connect to the yet-to-be-built switching station. The court’s ruling affirms the previous approval of the route by the SCC while opening the door to the county opposing a rezoning of the land in Grove to build the switching station.

The line would cross the river on towers with an average height of 160 feet — though four would be 295-feet tall — made of latticed metal. The utility has renderings of what it says the finished line would look like here, while the National Trust for Historic Preservation has created its own 3D rendering.

James City County, the James River Association and the Save the James Alliance went before Virginia’s highest court in January to make a few arguments against the line, taking the position that the line would blemish the view on the James River, which they said looks much as it did when Capt. John Smith first sailed its waters. They sought to have the court overturn a decision approving the line by the SCC, the regulatory body that oversees utilities in the commonwealth.

But the court agreed with attorneys representing Dominion Virginia Power and the SCC on the question of how the line would affect historic resources. In its opinion, it said that while the effect of a project on historic and environmental assets is one part of the consideration, the SCC must make decisions based on the “total public interest.”

The court cited language in the Code of Virginia that requires utilities to “minimize the environmental impact” transmission equipment would have on the landscape.

“‘Minimize’ does not require no impact, and the [SCC] is also required … to consider the economic development of the Commonwealth and service reliability,” the decision reads.

Dominion says it needs to build the line to ensure the reliability of the power network on the Peninsula because of the looming retirement of the Yorktown Power Station due to federal environmental regulations. Without the line, the utility says the Peninsula could experience blackouts up to 80 days per year.

In arguments to the SCC, it said other routes for the line were not feasible due to high costs or engineering challenges. Several of the groups opposed to the line have suggested alternative routes, such as burying the line beneath the James River or having the lines cross the river at another location.

The utility has issued a lengthy rebuttal of alternative routes, available here.

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