- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Dominion Virginia Power’s preferred route for a high-voltage power line over the James River has won state regulatory approval over objections it would mar a historic stretch of the James.

The decision by the State Corporation Commission leaves to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the final say on the 500-kilovolt line between Surry County and a new switching station in James City County. More than half of the 8-mile transmission line would span the James on towers rising to 300 feet.

The debate over the transmission line has centered on a growing demand for power amid the retirement of coal-fired plants and concern about the visual impact of towers rising to a height of 300 feet over the river.

Preservationists argue the transmission line would mar the vista of some of the state’s most historic attractions, including Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. They are collectively known as the Historic Triangle.

The power line would be visible from the eastern end of Jamestown Island, according to William Kelso, chief archaeologist at the first European settlement in North America. The towers would also be glimpsed from the Colonial Parkway, the 23-mile roadway along the York River that links the state’s Historic Triangle.

“It really infringes upon what I think is a national treasure,” Kelso said Friday of the parkway. “That’s a major concern, something that severs the river. It’s just so pristine.”

That section of river was a passage for Native Americans and includes the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, named after the intrepid Jamestown settler.

Kelso and other preservationists have argued for an alternate path across the James or burying the transmission line under the river.

Dominion said Friday a 500-kilovolt line is not “a viable underground” alternative and the cost would be five times the estimated $60 million for an overhead transmission line.

The National Trust for Historic Places has called the area where the transmission line would be strung as “a portal into a remarkable chapter of American history.”

The SCC had decided late last year that the transmission line was needed to meet the region’s power demands.

“The evidence is clear that the proposed project is necessary to continue reliable electric service to the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work across this broad region of Virginia,” the SCC wrote.

Commissioners said they were mindful of the historic path it would follow, concluding that routes for the transmission line “reasonably minimize” the impact on historic attractions and the environment.

In a decision late last week, the commission endorsed one of several routes for the transmission line.

The so-called Surry-Skiffes Creek project includes the overhead transmission line from a Dominion switching station in Surry County to a new switching station in James City County in the state’s Tidewater region. It also would include a 230-kilovolt transmission line passing through James City and York counties and the city of Newport News, and ending in Hampton.

Dominion has said it is sensitive to the history of the region and environmental concerns. It has said it has worked to plot a route that would minimize its impact.

The Army Corps review would not only assess the line’s impact on historic resources, but also wildlife. The review, for instance, will examine the project’s impact on giant Atlantic sturgeon, which sustained Jamestown settlers.

The Atlantic sturgeon has been declared an endangered species by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Sturgeon migrate through the area where the transmission towers would be anchored in the river. The fish spawn upriver.

Dominion said Friday it has begun staging construction materials ahead of the expected May decision by the Army Corps.


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

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