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Conor Sokolowsky was one of the last people to speak during a three-hour public hearing Friday night on a proposed power line across the James River.
He was also the youngest – the 14-year-old high school freshman told officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers he has asked himself whether he would live and work in the area as an adult if the local economy was negatively affected by the project.
It’s comments like Sokolowsky’s that made an impression on Col. Jason Kelly, the commander of the Army Corps Norfolk district and someone who will be part of the Army Corps’ decision to grant or deny Dominion Virginia Power a building permit for the power line project.
“Comments from the millennials in the audience resonated, but I think every comment contributed or will contribute to my holistic approach and discernment of the magnitude of this decision,” Kelly said.
Around 325 people came out, many sporting blue “Reliable Energy” stickers or yellow “Save the James” stickers, to Lafayette High School for the Oct. 30 forum. More than 80 of them shared their views on the proposed power lines over the James and the Chickahominy rivers with four U.S. Army Corps officials, including Kelly and Tom Walker, chief of the district’s regulatory branch.
The Army Corps is reviewing a permit application from Dominion Virginia Power to build transmission lines over the James River to connect the Surry Switching Station to the proposed Skiffes Creek Switching Station in James City County.
In a Preliminary Alternatives Conclusions White Paper published Oct. 1, the Army Corps identified two options that would be the most federally compliant and cost-effective ways to power the Peninsula following the scheduled closure of the Yorktown Power Station in 2016: the Surry-Skiffes Creek-Whealton 500kv Overhead power line over the James River, the preferred option of Virginia Dominion Power, and the Chickahominy-Skiffes Creek-Whealton 500kV power line, which would cross the Chickahominy River.
The forum began with eight residents and representatives who spoke in favor of Dominion’s preferred line, which they argued would ensure reliable energy on the Peninsula and prevent blackouts.
Williamsburg resident Doug Brown said he went out to the sites where the transmission towers would be built and said he could not see the potential negative effects. He said he could, however, envision the consequences for the local tourism industry if the lines are not built.
“Visitors and guests depend on reliable, around-the-clock electric power. They have every right to expect electricity to be available to them,” Brown said. “Businesses will leave if we’re confronted with power outages.”
Judy Ledbetter of Charles City said it is in the nation’s best interest to close coal-burning plants like the Yorktown Power Station and pursue the cleaner energy alternative afforded by the James River option.
“The negative impacts on Carter’s Grove and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail are relatively minor and, in this case, the national interest in historic preservation must bow to the national interest in clean air and national security,” Ledbetter said.
Representatives from local and national organizations then came forward to speak out against the James River route, urging the Army Corps to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement before it made a determination on the permit application.
Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of nonprofit Preservation Virginia, said it is critical the James and the Chickahominy rivers are protected to support the Historic Triangle’s industries.
“The Peninsula needs power, our nation needs inspiration gained from our evocative landscapes and the region needs a stable, commercial tourism economy. Undertake the EIS,” Kostelny said.
Joy Oakes, a representative from the National Parks Conservation Association, argued that Dominion could “do better,” comparing the search for the best energy alternative to John Smith’s journey to America.
“I think we will agree that when John Smith and his compadres sailed across the ocean blue to what’s now Jamestown, they weren’t coming to ride the roller coasters at Busch Gardens. They were looking for something better,” Oakes said. “We can do better. The responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers in this matter is to require a more thorough analysis of the options that will power the Peninsula as well as preserve our historic resources for this and future generations.”
From there, comments bounced between support and opposition for most of the evening, finally settling on a consistent assertion that an EIS needs to be completed and Dominion needs to explore other options.
Some residents and representatives spoke directly to the Chickahominy River route, asserting that power lines would be more visible and disruptive to residents traveling and living along the route.
Valerie Adkins said her home sits within 100 feet of the route’s right-of-way and expressed concern for the proposal’s effects on the Cedar Grove Baptist Church cemetery.
“Approximately 20 members of my family are buried in the cemetery. The cemetery should be a peaceful place and we should not interfere with those who are at rest,” Adkins said.
One commenter, Bryce Hollingsworth, a Williamsburg architect and a retired colonel himself, asked Kelly to look at the turnout and think of the power needs of stakeholders who could not attend the hearing.
“I cannot imagine the issues that Dominion Power would face if there is a series of rolling blackouts. The economic effect would be tremendous. The effect on national defense would be felt, and in the winter there are hundreds of people in low income brackets that would face serious health concerns,” Hollingsworth said. “From one colonel to another, when you make this decision, I suggest you consider the silent majority in our community.”