The James River makes a long lazy arc around Hog Island before it enters Burwell Bay on its way to Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay.
Opposite Hog Island and just downstream from Jamestown Island, Carter’s Grove plantation house, like earlier colonial era and American Indian settlements before it, commands a view of the river mostly unchanged since the 1770s and remarkably devoid of modern intrusions.
The views and the on-the-water experience along this undeveloped stretch of the James River are at the center of a struggle between those who argue for their protection and those who believe that more electric power for Virginia’s most southern peninsula should trump them.
Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest energy producer, has proposed a high-voltage overhead transmission line across the James River from its Surrey Nuclear Power Plant on the Hog Island peninsula to a property it owns across the river in James City County, just downriver from Jamestown Island and Carter’s Grove.
The river crossing makes up 4.1 miles of the project and includes 17 towers averaging 160 tall — with several 270 feet tall — that would carry the lines across the James River. Named the Surrey-Skiffes Creek project, the 7.4-miles of 500-kilovolt overhead transmission lines run from the nuclear plant to a new switching station that would send the power into the electric grid fed by Dominion’s aging and soon to be decommissioned coal-fired plant in Yorktown.
But a coalition of local, state and regional groups opposes the project on the grounds that the impacts of the overhead transmission line to the history and habitat of the area would be “irreparable.” They argue that the sense of place would be destroyed at a site many call “a national treasure.”
The coalition includes James City County’s government, Save the James, James River Association, Virginia Conservation Network, Preservation Virginia, Garden Club of Virginia, Scenic Virginia, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, National Parks Conservation Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“There are places in the watershed where you can look and see it pretty much as it was 400 years ago, and this stretch of the river is one of those places,” said Joanna Ogburn, director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy. The Conservancy is the Park Service’s partner in developing the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail that originates along this stretch of the river.
The trail, created by Congress in December 2006, is the only water trail with a national historic designation. It has been under development by the service’s Chesapeake Bay Office.
“There are reasons that this water trail was protected by law,” said Pam Goddard of the National Parks Conservation Association. Not only did the Jamestown explorer John Smith begin and end every trip along this stretch of the river, but the views are what trail planners call “evocative,” possessing unique cultural, historic and recreational value.
“The river — and the views from the river — have the ability to really take you back in time,” Ogburn said. Just imagine, she said, how different it would feel paddling under these towers — towers that require lighting day and night — and high-tension wires adorned with large orange balls to warn approaching aircraft.
The Surrey-Skiffes Creek project has cleared some legal hurdles, but local and federal permits are still required before it can move forward.
In May, the Virginia Supreme Court sided with an earlier decision by the State Corporation Commission that approved the need and scope for the proposed project, and endorsed Dominion’s plan as the least costly, viable alternative that would address the reliability issues presented in the case. The SCC is responsible for determining the need, route and environmental impacts of transmission lines of the size of this project — so consumers benefit from “just and reasonable costs.”
Dominion is subject to regulations of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit industry group empowered and overseen by the U.S. government to assure the reliability of the bulk-power system in North America.
Dominion has warned that if the project is not started by August 2015, the company will not meet a 2017 deadline resulting from the new EPA Clean Power Plan to decommission its Yorktown power plant. Dominion also said that any further delay will result in rolling blackouts during peak use time in the Newport News-Hampton Roads area, which includes a number of military bases.
But the Virginia court agreed with appeal plaintiffs (including James City County) that the decision to allow the construction of a necessary switch station was a land use decision the county must make.
Dominion owns the land for the switching station — it is close to an existing transmission line that it already owns — but needs a special use permit or rezoning from the county to proceed with construction. Without the switching station approval, Dominion must seek an alternative shore landing for the project.
“The county has gone on record to say that this route across the James is not the right location for this power line,” said James City County Supervisor John McGlennon. The county is part of the “historic triangle” of Virginia, named for the significant historic tourist destinations of Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg and national historic landmarks like Carter’s Grove — which drive the economy of the region.
Because of this, McGlennon said, the county has taken steps to protect the region’s historic ambience, including purchasing land along the James. “These are historically irreplaceable lands,” he said. “We’ve got a special piece of history here, with an unobstructed view of the river from many places.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will also have a say in whether these views will remain unspoiled. Law charges the Corps with balancing the electrical reliability benefits of the project against any foreseen detrimental impacts to the region’s natural and cultural resources.
The process includes a historic resources review that determines the impact on a defined set of properties or landscapes, listed or eligible for listing, on the National Register, a program administered by the National Park Service.
The Corps has determined that there would be “overall adverse effects” on a cultural landscape associated with Jamestown Island, Hog Island and their maritime approaches. But it has stopped short of acknowledging the water trail, saying that it lacks eligibility for the listing on the National Register.
The National Park Services disagrees. Chuck Hunt, superintendent of the NPS Chesapeake Bay Region, said, “The proposed aerial transmission lines and their 17 towers in the river would have a dramatic impact on the historic landscape of the river and on visitors’ experience of the trail’s resources.”
Eligibility determinations are ultimately the responsibility of the Keeper of the National Register. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent agency that oversees the historic review process for federal projects (including projects that require a federal permit, like the Surrey- Skiffes Creek project), has recently asked that the Corps ask the Keeper to determine the water trail’s eligibility.
The Park Service has also argued that because the project will impact other historic resources in the area — Colonial National Historic Park, the Colonial Parkway and the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail — these should also be part of the Corps’ assessment.
The Corps’ adverse effects ruling led to a public comment period, which closed June 20, and further negotiations with all the “consulting parties,” which include all of the Save the James Alliance organizations and others. These negotiations are for determining if and how these adverse effects can be mitigated or avoided.
Even if all of the parties cannot agree, the deliberations will impact the Corps’ final ruling, as will an environmental assessment that is under way.
Tom Walker, chief of the regulatory branch at the Norfolk Division of the Corps, said that the major environmental issue associated with the project is the presence of Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered species that travels this section of the tidal James to spawn in the spring and autumn below Richmond.
Jamie Brunkow, the James River Association’s Lower James Riverkeeper, knows this stretch of the river well, and has taken part in research to better understand the sturgeon’s life cycle.
“We know that the area of Deep Water Shoals (just downstream from the proposed crossing) is where the sturgeon congregate prior to their fall spawning run,” Brunkow said. “This project poses a major concern for us — for the water trail, and for the sturgeon.”
Coalition members say that Dominion is pushing the project, which was first proposed in 2012, because of convenience and cost — and to avoid fines the company would incur if it continues to operate the Yorktown plants past the 2017 regulatory deadline.
They charge that Dominion has not fully and fairly evaluated alternatives to the proposed power line project, including multiple alternate rivers crossings, submerging the power line and considering smaller regional generating facilities and technology solutions that would increase efficiency, reduce demand and include renewable energy sources. They note that military bases — one of the key customers in the Hampton Roads area — are increasingly generating their own power.
But Dominion spokesperson Dan Genest said, “We always take into account the natural and historic resources of every project we engage in of any sort. The Skiffes Creek transmission line project is no different. The electric reliability demand and needs of the Peninsula area of Hampton Roads are crucial to the commonwealth and residents/businesses of that area. The State Corporation Commission agreed with Dominion that the route over the James River was the best, most efficient, least costly, and least historically and environmentally impactful option. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld that decision.
“We are balancing all the various needs and interests,” Genest said, “and look forward to constructing the project,”
Coalition members are urging the Corps to undertake a full environmental impact study, rather than the less involved environmental assessment currently being developed. “The EIS would give us assurance that all the alternatives to this project would be fully evaluated,” said Preservation Virginia’s executive director, Elizabeth Kostelny.
“For generations, people have thought so much of this view that they have worked to protect it,” she said. “This will be our legacy to future generations.”
James City County may decide on the switching station permit in September. The Corps is unable to estimate when its review will be completed.
For information about the permit application, visit nao.usace.army.mil/Missions/Regulatory/SkiffesCreekPowerLine.aspx.