Bacon's Rebellion

Clash of Competing Values

Map 1: Subdivisions and recreation areas. Proposed Chickahominy-Skiffes Creek transmission line route. (Click for image.)

Virginians need pipelines and transmission lines to keep the economy humming. But we also value our historical, cultural and historical heritage. The trade-offs are getting harder and harder.

by James A. Bacon

In the 1970s engineers at Dominion Virginia Power envisioned the need to increase the supply of electric power to the Virginia Peninsula one day. The logical course of action at the time seemed to be hooking into a 500 kV substation north of the James River in Charles City County, skirting Williamsburg, and plugging into a York County switching station where the power could be stepped down to lower voltages. To secure the route, the company proactively procured easements the entire length. It seemed an example of far-sighted planning.

When the Environmental Protection Agency enacted new toxic-emission standards earlier this decade that would compel Dominion to shut down its Yorktown coal-fired power plants, the company dusted off plans to import electricity from outside the Peninsula. However, taking a close look at the route, Courtney Fisher, an electric transmission siting and permitting specialist, found that many things had changed since the 1970s. Developers had built subdivisions right up to the easement. Environmental laws had became stricter, creating protections for wetlands and waterways. Government agencies had created classes of protected land, such as parks, conservation districts and agricultural/forestal districts. Private landowners had set up conservation easements. Society as a whole placed greater value upon scenic vistas and cultural resources like churches, battlefields, cemeteries and Indian settlements.

Even though Dominion owned the right of way, it didn’t take many public hearings to realize that building a high-voltage transmission line along that route would be a public relations disaster. The 38-mile line would cross 28 subdivisions and 300 parcels, leaving 1,129 residences within 500 feet of the line.

“The easement was purchased but the land was never cleared,” Fisher said. “Through the years, people bought houses. Their plats should have showed the easements. Some showed our transmission line easements and some did not. In either case, a line on a piece of paper is very different from the reality.”

Making matters worse, the transmission line would cut through 21 miles of forest land, requiring the clearing of 420 acres of trees, and it would affect 253 acres of wetland and forested wetlands. A crossing over the Chickahominy River would disrupt views to one of the most pristine stretches of river in eastern Virginia. To top it all off, the Chickahominy Indian tribe expressed concerns about the proximity of the line to its lands.

The route would have been so disruptive that Dominion decided to push an alternative, the 7.4-mile Surry-Skiffes Creek route across a historic stretch of the James River, arousing the wrath of conservationists and preservationists in the Williamsburg area and around the state.  As controversial as that proposed route has proven to be, Dominion believes the Chickahominy route would have been worse.

When it comes to picking a route, sometimes there are only painful choices, says Fisher. “We know we can’t please everyone, but we strive to minimize overall impacts.”

As the United States adapts to a post-coal era of more solar, wind and natural gas, major energy corporations are actively seeking to acquire right of way for two major gas pipelines and build several electric transmission lines in Virginia, with more projects waiting in the wings. The problem is that more places on the map are designated off-limits than ever before.

Route of the Williams Companies’ Transco pipeline, built circa 1950.

Building gas and electric lines was a lot easier a half century ago when projects disturbed little more than farm and woodlands. Witness the Transco pipeline built through Virginia around 1950 in a straight line. For purposes of acquiring right of way, it was a straightforward proposition to calculate the loss of economic value to a farm or a timber stand to compensate a landowner for an easement across his land.

Since then, suburban sprawl has smeared low-density subdivisions across vast swaths of the landscape, while changing societal values have placed a priority on preserving Virginia’s cultural, historical and environmental resources. Try assigning an economic value to a family cemetery, an expanse of marsh grass or the bucolic view from a vineyard.

Gas and electric companies follow a standard procedure when plotting routes for pipelines and transmission lines. The preliminary step is to plot the most economical path from Point A to Point B, using detailed maps identifying terrain features as well as environmental, historical and cultural assets in the path. Within the budget constraints of the project, they are willing to zig and zag to avoid sensitive locations. If it is impractical to steer around a subdivision, wetlands or scenic vista, utility companies endeavor to minimize the impact — whether drilling through mountains, in the case of pipelines, employing low-glare materials to build a transmission line, or utilizing any number of other strategies. Then begins the open houses and meetings with affected landowners, federal and state agencies and other interested parties to refine the proposed routes further.

A particularly thorny set of issues revolves around how much money utilities should spend in order to avoid or mitigate these conflicts. If a pipeline or transmission line diminishes viewsheds and destroys economic value, how much of that cost should be shifted to rate payers and how much should be absorbed by the property owner? And what happens if a historic, cultural or environmental asset is priceless? Bacon’s Rebellion will explore those issues in an upcoming article.

However those issues are decided, Virginia will be seeing more of these conflicts. To show how challenging it can be to plot a route, Bacon’s Rebellion sat down with Fisher to discuss the challenges posed by the Chickahominy-Skiffes Creek route and with Robert M. Bisha, director-environmental business for Dominion Resources, to walk through the major choke points in the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The Chickahominy-Skiffs Creek Route

There are so many obstacles to the Chickahominy-Skiffes Creek transmission line route that combining them all in one map would render the map unintelligible, so Dominion created four maps for Bacon’s Rebellion. Map 1 at the top of the article shows subdivisions and recreation areas in light yellow and orange.

Map 2: Environmentally sensitive areas. Source: Dominion Virginia Power. (Click for larger image.)

Map 2 shows environmentally sensitive areas: forests, streams and wetlands. The yellow spot rates “high” in the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s National Heritage Resources Screen. The orange spots rank “very high,” and the red spot “outstanding.”

Map 3: Protected lands. Source: Dominion Virginia Power. (Click for larger image.)

Table for conservation easements map

Map 3 displays public lands, conservation easements on private land, and agricultural/forestal lands.

Map 4 below shows historical and architectural assets, including battlefields.

In commenting on the challenges, Fisher moves from west to east. The first issue arises, she notes, practically next door to the Chickahominy Substation: the transmission line passes near the Chickahominy Tribal Center in Charles City County (as displayed in Map 1). The website of the state-recognized Indian tribe touts “sustainable lifestyle, responsible energy usage, and environmental stewardship” as values consistent with the ancient vision of “life in harmony with creation.” Not surprisingly, in public hearings, tribal chief Stephen Adkins expressed reservations about the line. The same area also was the site of the Civil War battle of Saint Mary’s Church, an 1864 cavalry engagement, seen in Map 4.

Map 4: Historical assets. Source: Dominion Virginia Power. (Click for larger image.)


Nearby, the proposed route passes very close to a  cemetery and church (a red dot in Map 1). Then it crosses two trails (purple lines in Map 1) designated as part of the Captain John Smith Trail system, as well as the Old Main Road Rural Historic District (Map 4), location of at least 82 archaeological resources, and determined to be potentially eligible for listing in the National Registry of Historic Places. Among the more notable structures there is Moss Side, a circa-1850, wood-framed, two-story dwelling with out buildings (Map 4).

Next, a few miles to the east, the electric-line intersects a large tract of wetlands on the Chickahominy River, some of which consists of state-owned conservation land, as well as an agricultural-forestal district (Map 2). That complex also contains birding trails. “This particular area is pristine,” Fisher says. “It’s virtually untouched.”

Continuing east, the route encounters parks, recreation areas and more trails (Map 3), including the Colonial Parkway (Map 4). Then, on the outskirts of Williamsburg, the transmission line blasts through several miles of residential development (Map 1). The Civil War battle of Williamsburg, or Fort Magruder, took place there, while the terminus of the line approaches the location of the famed Revolutionary War battle at Yorktown (Map 4).

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline Route

As managing partner of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Dominion Transmission Inc., the business unit of Dominion Resources that builds natural gas pipelines, has petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build a 564-mile, interstate natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina. Most of the route is uncontroversial — Dominion is getting very little push back from landowners. But the proposal has generated intense resistance in Augusta and Nelson Counties in Virginia, where the route has to thread the needle between U.S. Forest Service land, the Appalachian trail, wilderness area and conservation easements, all while trying to follow ridge lines across mountainous terrain.

Proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route through August and Nelson Counties. Map credit: Dominion Resources. (Click for larger image.)

Bob Bisha, leader of the pipeline routing team, has the goal of devising a route that causes the least distress possible. One of the biggest challenges is to pick a path through a near-impenetrable wall of restricted areas. As can be seen in the map above, the pipeline route (the blue line) had few options. “We can’t go through the Shenandoah National Park, the Appalachian Trail or the Blue Ridge Parkway,” he says. “Those are non-starters.”

The route skirts to the east of valuable U.S. Forest Service land (the big green blob with green cross-hatching), much of which is roadless, classified as potential wilderness area, and/or designated a special biological area. The route then twists to the southwest, squeezing between Forest Service land and land belonging to the Appalachian Trail. (The trail is yellow and the land associated with it is pink.)

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy will not grant permission for the pipeline to cross the trail or its lands. But close to the Nelson County line, there is a tiny gap with no buffer land. Dominion made the decision to drill through the mountain there, using horizontal directional drilling technology, and literally pass underneath the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Emerging east of the Appalachian Trail, the pipeline then would swing south of the Wintergreen Resort (the mountainous area just north of the 160-mile marker). Many Wintergreen residents objected to the visual impact of the pipeline Right of Way cut through wooded mountains, and Dominion has consulted with the Wintergreen Property Owners Association to mitigate the impact as much as practicable. “We don’t anticipate any issues involving access [to the resort], either during construction or afterwards,” Bisha says.

Once past Wintergreen, the route poses few obstacles for ten miles or so before hitting a conservation easement on privately owned land. Terrain considerations made the intrusion unavoidable in order to stay out of nearby wetlands, streams and developed areas, Bisha says.

Map source: Dominion Transmission Inc.

The original plan was to head south, swinging west of the James River Wildlife Management Area (the dark green block) but that would have taken the pipeline through the Norwood-Wingina Rural Historic District (in purple), which has been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Originally occupied by the Monacan Indian nation, the 3,450-acre district was settled by English colonists in the 1700s. Located on the James River and Kanawha Canal and later served by a railroad, the district gave rise to tobacco cultivation, plantations, a warehouse and two villages.

The adjusted route cuts through the James River wildlife area and, beyond it, the Swift Island Mitigation Site, a constructed wetlands. To avoid disrupting both habitats, the ACP will run the pipe underground. Additionally, the route was modified to minimize impact to the new Warminster Historic district, which was adopted just prior to the project application. (See photos of historic rural structures here.)

The pipeline emerges south of Satchidananda Ashram Yogaville, a spiritual retreat in Buckingham County where yoga and meditation are practiced. “The pipeline will be buried out of site,” said Bisha. “They won’t even know it’s there.” However, construction noise will be an issue for people expecting to practice meditation in quiet. “We want to be good neighbors,” he adds. “We propose to … to minimize the noise impacts.”

The ACP will intersect with the Transco pipeline south of Yogaville in order to serve Dominion Virginia Power’s Bear Garden and Bremo natural gas-fired power stations. The pipeline company is obligated through customer contracts to deliver natural gas to a particular point of the Transco pipeline. Swinging the pipeline to the east of the James River Wildlife Area and Yogaville is not a practical alternative, Bisha says.

Dominion is trying to minimize the impact of the pipeline path, but it’s important to recognize that it also is determined to stick to a budget. The overall project cost is expected to run between $4.5 billion and $5 billion. The company has not provided a breakdown of those costs, but Right of Way acquisition and pipeline construction will be major factors.

In my discussions with Dominion about the drawing of transmission lines and gas pipelines, I did not address the question of whether the company could cause less disruption if it were willing to bust its budget by spending more on re-routing or mitigation. That issue has been especially pointed on the Virginia Peninsula. Foes of the Surry-Skiffes Creek line across the James River, which Dominion favors in place of the Chickahominy-Skiffes Creek route, argue that the worst negatives could be offset by burying the transmission line under the river. Dominion does not dispute that such an alternative is technologically feasible but argues against it on the grounds that they would not have the same capacity, would impact different viewsheds and would cost tens, or hundreds, of millions of dollars more — costs that would be passed on to electric rate payers.

That then raises a philosophical question regarding trade-offs between electric rates, grid reliability, viewshed preservation, and conservation of environmental, historical and cultural resources. There are no easy answers. The only thing that is certain is that these issues will become more prominent in the years ahead as the need for big energy infrastructure collides with the increasing desire to conserve priceless resources.

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