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Opponents of a controversial power line over the James River gained a victory at Wednesday night’s meeting of the James City County Planning Commission.
The commissioners voted 4-2 to recommend the county’s Board of Supervisors deny a request from Dominion Virginia Power to rezone an area of land near Skiffes Creek in Grove to allow the construction of an electric power switching station.
George Drummond (Roberts), who represents the district where the switching station would be located, and Richard Krapf (Powhatan) voted in favor of Dominion’s proposal.
Planning Commissioner Christopher Basic (Berkeley) was not present for the meeting, while County Administrator Bryan Hill and Supervisors John McGlennon (Roberts) and Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) were present in the audience.
The switching station is an essential part of Dominion’s plan to construct a more than 4-mile-long 500 kV power line across the James River to support the Peninsula’s electric grid. The line would connect the Surry Nuclear Station with the proposed switching station at Skiffes Creek.
Federal environmental regulations are forcing the closure of the coal-burning Yorktown Power Station in 2016. Dominion has repeatedly said the aerial line is the best way to support the power grid and avoid service disruptions for customers, rejecting other options as prohibitively expensive or technologically unfeasible.
First Public Hearing
Wednesday night was the county’s first official public hearing on the proposed power line project. A decision from the Virginia Supreme Court limited the county’s control of the project to the zoning of the proposed switching station location.
Richmond attorney Brennen Keene, who represented Dominion at the meeting, said the switching station was an acceptable use of the property, which is owned by the utility. Two of the three parcels included in switching station plan are currently zoned for light residential use, but there has been no development on the land since Dominion initially purchased the properties in 1974.
Keene and other Dominion representatives said the area was unsuitable for residential development, and the switching station was an appropriate use of the property. Additionally, figures provided by the utility said the project could produce more than $300,000 in tax revenue annually for the county.
Citizen Comments Largely Against Plan
More than 60 people attended the three-hour meeting, and all but one citizen speaker opposed the plan. In many cases, criticism of the proposed switching station site transitioned to criticism of the entire power line project.
Speakers critical of the plan suggested two possible courses of action for the commission to take: not to recommend allowing the switching station, or to delay consideration of the switching station until the Army Corps of Engineers, which has final say over the power line’s route, completes its analysis of the proposal.
Lancaster County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jason Bellows and County Administrator Frank Pleva both attended the meeting and spoke out against the power line proposal.
Bellows said it was the commissioners’ “moral and ethical responsibility” to protect the historic views of the river, and compared the construction of the power line to “despoiling” of historic artifacts perpetrated by the Islamic State extremist group.
Elizabeth Kostelny, executive director of Preservation Virginia, said there were too many questions left to be answered about the power line project – including final designs for the switching station itself – for the Planning Commission to recommend the project.
“The question is whether we’re going to accept an expedient solution, or honor the generations that have come before us by finding an innovative alternative that maintains the integrity of this historic landscape,” she said.
City of Williamsburg resident David Trichler agreed, saying the commission should be deliberate in its consideration of the full effects of the power line proposal.
“I moved here three years ago — my wife and I moved here,” Trichler said. “We want to stay here. We think this is a wonderful community, a beautiful community. I think of future generations I want to raise here. … A decision like this is actually really important, and they do tell a little bit about our characters, about what we prioritize in our communities, and for our families and for future generations
County resident Daniel Shae asked the commission to consider the public’s input on the issue, suggesting the larger than normal attendance signified opposition to the power line. Shae also said the people who would be most affected by the construction of the switching station had not had the chance to have their voices heard.
“Are there any trailer park residents here tonight?” he said, asking for a show of hands. “I don’t think they’re well represented.”
John Rogers, who owns property in Grove near the proposed site of the switching station, said he did not think the right of way between his property and the Dominion site was sufficient to support the infrastructure needed for the switching station. He added he thought Dominion had not been entirely forthcoming in their presentation of the project.
“They’re awfully secret — they don’t show pictures,” he said. “I’m for the power, but I’d like to see a little bit more.”
Henry Denning was the only speaker to support the switching station proposal, saying the cost to residents in terms of rate hikes and service outages was too great not to act.
“Unless we move forward, we’ll be subject to rolling brownouts,” Denning said.
Planning Commission Torn on Power Line
During the commission’s discussion period, several of the planners spoke of the difficulty of considering the switching station without also considering the effects of the eventual power line. Ultimately, those future considerations carried the vote.
“Our job is not to look at today only,” Planning Commission Chairwoman Robin Bledsoe said. “It’s to look at the county and what we envision for later on.”
Drummond said he did not believe the switching station would be a nuisance to residents, while Krapf said the area had limited uses under its current zoning. Both voted in support of the application.
After the meeting, Dominion spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said the vote was disappointing, but the utility would continue the process through to the Board of Supervisors.
“The good news is they did make a decision,” she said. “Now the Board of Supervisors is in position to make a decision next month and it has the final say. … We hope the members will approve the switching station, which is necessary in order for us to build the Skiffes Creek project and maintain reliable service for the 600,000 Peninsula residents that depend on it.”
The Board of Supervisors could consider the rezoning request at its work session Aug. 11.
There is no timeline for the Army Corps of Engineers to complete its review of the power line route.