Supervisors to hear Skiffes Creek switching station request

and tjefferson@vagazette.com, dress@vagazette.com

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a request from Dominion Virginia Power to rezone 67 acres along Pocahontas Trail and for a special-use permit to build a switching station during its Tuesday meeting.

On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a final permit allowing Dominion Energy to build a high voltage transmission line across the James River, from Surry County to Skiffes Creek in James City County.

The county's supervisors will now have a say over whether the switching station is an appropriate use for the cleaver-shaped property that fronts Pocahontas Trail and runs behind Windy Hill mobile home park and turns northwest to face the railroad tracks and Merrimac Trail.

Dominion has said the station is needed to connect the transmission lines to the rest of its grid and avoid rolling blackouts on the Peninsula.

"There are certainly concerns we will have to hear on impact on surrounding neighbors and neighborhoods," board of supervisors chairman Kevin Onizuk said. "We will also have to look at the ability to ensure consistent power to our citizens and businesses. One thing folks do need to keep in mind is that it is our understanding that Dominion will be building a switching station, whether or not it ends up in James City County is the decision we're considering."

Surry-Skiffes Creek power lines project has been the topic of significant criticism in the past three years because of its proximity to Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement in the United States. The Corps approved the James River crossing after finding that the only other route it deemed feasible, down the length of the Peninsula, would affect more historic sites and wetlands than the river crossing. Dominion also will be required to undertake a $91 million plan to mitigate the environmental impact of the line.

The county board of supervisors is now the last government entity to rule on the project.

The county planning commission denied Dominion's rezoning and special-use permit request, 4-2, in a meeting in August 2015.

Supervisors will consider only whether Dominion's use of the Pocahontas Trail property is proper, and not the worthiness of the entire project spanning across the James River.

"All we're dealing with is the switching station, I won't even talk about anything outside that switching station," said supervisor Michael Hipple. "The only thing we can determine is what happens with that land."

In its proposal, Dominion is offering to relocate the existing Windy Hill Marketplace bus stop to the switching station property as a way to allow for easier access to a nearby neighborhood of mobile homes and James River Elementary School. The utility company would also create a pull-off lane along Pocahontas Trail and build a shelter for riders waiting for the bus.

If the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority or the Virginia Department of Transportation does not approve the relocation, the applicant has proffered to spend the equivalent amount toward other transit improvements along Pocahontas Trail, according to Dominion's application with the county.

"It's a question of the impact on the transportation network that surrounds that site, the dense population and the institutional neighbors, residential areas and how they may be impacted." supervisor John McGlennon said.

Supervisors Ruth Larson and Sue Sadler could not be reached for comment.

Opposition to river crossing

The Army Corps of Engineers issued a final permit Thursday allowing Dominion Energy Virginia to build the high-voltage transmission line across the James River, from Surry County to Skiffes Creek.

Historic preservation groups said the line, which would be carried across the river on 17 towers, some as high as 295 feet, would mar the site of the Jamestown Settlement.

"We believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a diligent and thorough review," Dominion spokeswoman Bonita Billingsley Harris said. "The permit from the Corps is a critical part of the project, and now allows us to begin construction on the line portion of the project in accordance with the provisions of (the environmental mitigation plan)."

The Corps had to approve the plan because the line crosses a navigable river and because it affects wetlands. As part of its review, it looked at the effect of the line on historic sites, on endangered species and on wetlands. The Corps did not require Dominion to make any changes to the line's route.

The impact on the historical landscape of the James River around Jamestown sparked the strongest opposition. While the Corps and the historic preservation agencies of the state and federal government have accepted Dominion's plan to reduce the impact of the line, several historic preservation groups that had intervened in the Corps' review refused to accept the plan, saying the line simply should not be built. More than two dozen filed formal protests.

"The James River at Jamestown is one of the most historically significant landscapes in the United States, and it should be protected from industrial development," said Sharee Williamson, associate general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Pamela Goddard, Chesapeake and Virginia program director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said her group will join others in asking the James City County supervisors not to approve the switching station.

"I know there is concern about safety," she said, adding that there is a nursing home nearby and that she believes supervisors are concerned about the difficulty of evacuating people if an accident happened.

Margaret Fowler, co-founder of Save the James Alliance said she's concerned about the switching station being unmanned and its location — abutting the Country Village Mobile Home Park and across rail tracks from the Merrimac Juvenile Detention Center and Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail.

"We hate to think of what would happen if a train were to derail there," Fowler said. "It imposes a future of industrialization on Grove, a community that seeks to be residential and that area has already borne the brunt of some industrialization."

Fowler said the alliance will voice their concerns at the Tuesday meeting. While the Board's approval is the last public hurdle to the project, Fowler said there are other legal options, such as suing the Army Corps of Engineers.

"The possibility for legal action is very real. It's appropriate to say this is the last public action, but we're not finished yet, we're not done," Fowler said. "We continue to pursue it. We know for a fact Dominion has other alternatives."

Dominion has said building the line will take 18 to 20 months. It can't actually start until several conditions in the $91 million mitigation plan are met.

Staff writer Amanda Williams contributed to this article.

Jefferson can be reached by phone at 757-790-9313. Ress can be reached at 757-247-4535.

James City supervisors meeting

When: 5 p.m., July 11

Where: 101 Mounts Bay Road

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