Dominion Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line still in limbo

Tara Bozick
Contact Reportertbozick@dailypress.com

Dominion Virginia Power is willing to compensate the Historic Triangle for the visual disruption from towers and a high-voltage transmission line running across the James River from Surry to James City County to the tune of $85 million. Historic preservationists aren't so willing to accept the trade-off.

The process to bring more reliable electricity to the Peninsula is dragging out as Dominion prepares to shut down the two coal-fired power plants at the Yorktown Power Station to comply with federal environmental rules in April. Without those plants, Dominion has warned the Peninsula is at risk of power outages during peak times 50-80 days of the year.

"The main message here is we're going to do everything we can to make sure lights don't go out on the Peninsula, but we need a long-term solution," Dominion Director of transmission planning Steve Chafin told attendees of a Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce presentation on Tuesday.

But a proposed 8-mile transmission line to connect the Peninsula to a higher voltage network has faced fierce opposition because it would be close to national historic landmark Carter's Grove, the Colonial Parkway and the Colonial National Historical Park which includes Historic Jamestowne in addition to crossing the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Dominion says the towers would be out of sight of Historic Jamestowne, Colonial Williamsburg and the Yorktown Battlefield although they can be viewed from the eastern end of Jamestown Island more than 3 miles away, the Colonial Parkway, Kingsmill Resort and Carter's Grove. Dominion also points out on its website that an amusement park ride, a sewage treatment plant and Surry Power Station can be seen from the same area of the river crossing.

Dominion applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a project permit in August 2013, but the Corps must take into account effects on historic properties, including an archaeological site, and ways to resolve adverse effects. A signed-off mitigation plan is an essential step in Dominion's permit process, according to the company's Tuesday presentation.

While the Corps invited various organizations, including opponents, to sign off on a mitigation agreement, the required signatures are from the Army Corps of Engineers, Dominion, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, said Randy Steffey, environmental scientist with the Corps' Southern Virginia regulatory section.

If an agreement can't be reached, then the Advisory Council will have 45 days to submit final comments to inform the final permit decision by Col. Jason E. Kelly, commander of the Corps' Norfolk district. A permit could still be issued without having agreement on the mitigation plan, Steffey said. The Corps is still reviewing input on the plan.

The proposed mitigation plan designates money in five funds for historic site activities and various projects, including shoreline protection from erosion, visitor landscape enhancements, battlefield preservation, water quality improvement and tourism enhancement. It also proposes funding for the York River, York River State Park and enhancing visitor understanding of the Werowocomoco site in Gloucester that had been occupied by Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources had a role in developing the mitigation plan with the understanding that land conservation projects and enhancements for Werowocomoco and the York River area could offset effects on the James River side, State Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward said.

"I think the Commonwealth would certainly prefer that there would be no viewshed impact, but our primary concern is reliable power to the Peninsula," Ward said.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal agency, noted questions still remain on whether effects can be adequately mitigated and that some parties want more analysis of alternatives but that a mitigation agreement is possible if those concerns can be resolved, said spokesman Matt Spangler. Still, he said some parties feel the only way to mitigate is to avoid the impacts.

"We're going to be disappointed with any outcome that would allow this project to be built," said Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Trust hired a consulting firm that identified four alternatives to the project. Chafin said Dominion evaluated them, among dozens of alternatives, and they were not viable. The Trust, along with the local Save the James Alliance, disagrees with Dominion about the viability of options. The National Park Service in a Jan. 12 letter also said that alternatives had not been fully evaluated.

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was also invited to sign the mitigation agreement, but a spokesman said the foundation is not taking a position.

Jamestown Island archaeologist Danny Schmidt said at the chamber event that a transmission line across the James would send a poor message to tourists that Virginia didn't want to preserve the "birthplace of America."

The Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance doesn't have a stance on the particular project, but wants to ensure reliable power for military and federal facilities in the region, particularly to protect against future base closures, said Rick Dwyer, Alliance deputy executive director.

"If we don't have reliable power, it'll impact negatively on tourism, business development growth as well as the military," Virginia Peninsula Chamber President and CEO Mike Kuhns said.

Dominion was granted two extensions to continue operating the coal-fired plants at Yorktown, but the company said rules would not allow another extension, spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said.

While the likelihood of a rolling blackout is low, Dominion wants to communicate to customers that the risk is real, Harris said. Dominion also launched a PoweringthePeninsula.com website to advocate for the project.

Dominion's $180 million project, not including the mitigation costs, includes the transmission line over the James River to a proposed switching station at Skiffes Creek in James City in addition to another 20-mile transmission line from Skiffes Creek to the existing Whealton substation in Hampton. It would take 18-20 months for construction.

Dominion applied for a James City County special-use permit for the Skiffes Creek switching station in June 2015, but has requested multiple extensions as it waits for the Army Corps of Engineers permit decision, said County Administrator Bryan Hill.

Bozick can be reached by phone at 757-247-4741. Sign up for a free weekday business news email at TidewaterBiz.com.

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