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Power line plans threaten historic preservation

JAMESTOWN, Va. — A power company’s plan to build high-rise transmission towers within sight of Jamestown Island has stirred opposition from historic preservationists who say they’ll be a visual blight from the swampy shore where America sprouted.

Dominion Virginia Power is awaiting permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to construct 17 towers across 4 miles of the James River. The towers would rise above the river to a height ranging from 160 feet to 295 feet, nearly the same height of the Statue of Liberty.

The transmission line would serve an estimated 80,000 homes in the Tidewater region of the state, which is crowded with military bases, subdivisions and tourist attractions. The utility argues, and state regulators agree, that the power line is needed to ensure the lights stay on.

But a who’s who of historic preservation groups, some residents and local attractions have lined up in opposition. They contend the power line would not only be an eyesore from Jamestown Island, but also blot a horizon where Britain established its first successful permanent settlement in North America more than 400 years ago.

“There are so many layers of American history there,” said Rob Nieweg, field director with the Washington, D.C., office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I’m hard-pressed to find a worse place for Dominion to build this power line.”

Because of the threat of a transmission line, the trust listed the James River as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America last year. Some are pushing to have it added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The watery path for the power line is in an area that could fill a few early American history textbooks.

The transmission line would traverse the James within Virginia’s Historic Triangle, a concentration of attractions that date to the nation’s founding. Besides Jamestown, founded in 1607, the region includes Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Carter’s Grove, a Colonial-era plantation that includes an 18,000-square-foot mansion and one mile of James River frontage. Its owners can be traced to the nation’s earliest English-speaking settlers.

Along the river and into Chesapeake Bay is the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, which retraces the journeys of the intrepid Jamestown settler.

Knitting together all this history is the Colonial National Historic Parkway, a 23-mile scenic route.

The transmission line would be visible from Carter’s Grove, Jamestown and a section of the parkway.

Save the James Alliance, a citizens group opposed to the transmission line, says it would “foul America’s founding waters.”

“The historical assets that Dominion’s project assaults have existed or been developed over 400 years of our nation’s history, cost millions of federal and state dollars to fully develop, and are enjoyed by visitors from around the world,” the alliance wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Dominion says the transmission line’s route was not made capriciously. It reflects tighter U.S. regulations on pollution from power plants, requiring the retirement of coal-fired power plants and the shifting of generation to more environmentally friendly gas-fired plants.

“We probably looked at literally dozens of different route alternatives,” Scot Hathaway, vice president of transmission operations, said of the so-called Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line. “In all instances all roads led back to our Skiffes route as the superior route.”

In an interview, Hathaway also disputes the visual impact on a river that sees steady maritime traffic and whose industries include shipbuilding to the south at Newport News. He also cited a nuclear power plant along the James, a nearby theme park and sewage treatment plants.

“Don’t mistake my intent,” Hathaway said in an interview. “It’s a beautiful place and I treasure it as do many other Virginians, but it’s a river that has an industrial character and it has for a long time.”

Many opponents have wondered why Dominion couldn’t submerge the transmission line under the James, saving the landscape from a string of lattice-designed towers.

Cost is one factor. Dominion has estimated that laying a transmission line beneath the river bottom would increase the cost of the project, which totals 8 miles of transmission line and other infrastructure, from approximately $160 million to anywhere from $330 million to $1 billion. A portion of the costs would be paid by ratepayers.

Reliability is another issue. A damaged underground line, for instance, would be much more difficult to find and repair.

The Army Corps has said its review includes historic resources. The transmission line’s potential impact on Atlantic sturgeon that travel up the river to spawn will also be examined.

The ancient fish once sustained British settlers at Jamestown but now has been declared an endangered species by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Hathaway said Dominion anticipates it will prevail and expects a permit by August.

During a visit to Jamestown Island in early June, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stood on Black Point, the eastern-most point of land on the island and a vantage where the towers would be visible. She said in an interview she was not aware of Dominion’s plans.

While not commenting directly on the dispute, she said the Interior Department is “very, very interested” in working with local communities on such issues.

“It is our job to preserve places like this, not just for current generations but for future generations,” she said.


Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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