This story has been updated to reflect new developments.
The guardians of George Washington’s Mount Vernon say they have reached an agreement with the energy company that planned to build an industrial facility across the Potomac River from the historic estate.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and Dominion Energy released joint statements the first week of July saying that they would work together to evaluate “alternatives” to the company’s planned location for a natural gas compressor station in Charles County, MD.
The Ladies’ Association, which describes itself as the first national historic preservation organization in the United States, warned that the compressor station could ruin the unspoiled panorama from the first president’s home in Virginia.
The Charles County site across the river isn’t necessarily off the table, though, and neither party has mentioned any specific alternative sites. Dominion already has begun the process in Maryland to acquire a suite of environmental permits necessary to construct the project.
The Ladies' Association took aim at the proposed facility with a press conference on Mount Vernon’s lawn at the end of June, supported by a dozen preservation, environmental and community groups from both sides of the Potomac. The lawn offers sweeping views of the river and a tree-lined portion of Maryland they say has been untarnished for centuries, thanks in large part to the groups’ efforts to protect it from development.
“Dominion Energy can move their compressor station. We can’t move Mount Vernon,” said Doug Bradburn, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the name of the nonprofit run by the ladies’ association, at the press conference.
Dominion has maintained that the facility, planned for land the company already owns, would help to deliver fuel for a power plant under construction nearby that’s intended to supply electricity to portions of both states — and that it would be out of sight from Mount Vernon. The company conducted its own sightline study and met with the Ladies’ Association, but officials seemed surprised by Mount Vernon’s last-minute press conference and the flurry of opposition to the project that followed.
“We have worked with Mount Vernon officials since the initial stages of planning for this project about two years ago,” said Dominion spokesman Karl Neddenien. “We designed our facility to minimize visuals at Mount Vernon.”
Neddenien said neither the Charles Station compressor’s buildings nor its emissions stacks would be visible from Mount Vernon, pointing to a sightline study conducted by the Chesapeake Conservancy that found 50-foot stacks would be hidden behind a bluff of trees.
But the height of the proposed stacks is considered uncertain by Mount Vernon advocates, Charles County residents and some environmental groups. A dozen organizations from both sides of the river — including the Chesapeake Conservancy, Alice Ferguson Foundation and groups representing Maryland residents near the planned facility — have joined the campaign to “Save George Washington’s View.”
The crux of the problem is that the higher the stacks, the more likely they are to be visible at Mount Vernon. But low stacks could deliver more air pollutants to the communities and forested areas surrounding the site on the Maryland side.
While Dominion maintains that the stacks will be too low to interfere with the viewshed, Mount Vernon advocates say that those plans could change, and they note that a far taller stack height of more than 113 feet is mentioned as a “best practice” in permitting documents. The facility’s air quality permit is being reviewed by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which could have a say in the height of the stacks.
Uncertainties about the height of the stacks is one of the reasons the Chesapeake Conservancy, after completing the sightline study for Mount Vernon, joined the effort to oppose it.
“Higher stacks would lessen the local air quality impacts, but would likely negatively affect the historic view,” said Susan Shingledecker, vice president and director of programs for the Chesapeake Conservancy. “Lower stacks would remain shielded by tree canopy, but could mean increased harmful environmental health conditions for surrounding communities. This is not a tradeoff we can accept.”
Charles County residents who live in the wooded areas surrounding the planned facility also argue that it would pose a fire or explosion risk and that its construction would negatively impact wetlands and forests. Environmental groups are concerned that the project could also harm local water quality.
Preservationists fear the construction could lead to more industrial activity in a portion of Maryland they’ve worked hard to keep forested.
“Their promises to us are not binding,” said Mount Vernon’s Bradburn. “They cannot guarantee that the industrial development will not have a long-term negative impact on the forest canopy that protects that view.”
Charles County officials denied Dominion a special use permit to build on the 50-acre parcel, which is zoned for rural conservation uses, but Dominion has sued the county. The company says a waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission overrides the county’s zoning ordinances.
In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation added Mount Vernon and Piscataway Park — a national park created across the river to help protect the estate’s view — to its annual list of the most endangered historic places in the United States, a move intended to galvanize national support for ongoing preservation.
Behind the effort is the educational and fund-raising prowess of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ group, a nonprofit that raises almost $50 million annually to manage the estate’s $250 million in assets, according to Charity Navigator.
Sarah Miller Coulson, regent of the Ladies’ Association, which has maintained Mount Vernon for 160 years, said the group’s members considers it their “sacred and moral responsibility” to protect Washington’s home, tomb and viewshed from projects like the one Dominion has planned. And they have a record of doing so.
In the 1950s, the organization stopped an oil-refining company from buying hundreds of acres across the river in Maryland. A decade later, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission planned to use eminent domain to build a three-story sewage treatment plant across from Mount Vernon, intending to soften the blow to the view by making the plant a replica of the estate. A congresswoman who was also a member of the Ladies’ Association helped redirect those plans.
“We won’t stop until we’re successful,” Coulson said of their latest campaign.
At Mount Vernon, efforts to protect the property’s view culminated in the 1960s with the creation of Piscataway Park on the banks of the Potomac in Maryland. The group also had a hand in hundreds of conservation agreements with landowners that limit the height of buildings and how many trees can be removed.
Piscataway “was the first park in the nation created to protect the viewshed” of another property, said Lori Arguelles, president and CEO of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, an environmental nonprofit based across the river from Mount Vernon in Accokeek, MD. Dominion’s compressor station would be within 50 feet of the park.
Dominion officials say environmental concerns about the project will be addressed through the local and state permitting process, which is ongoing. Dominion has been expanding its network of energy infrastructure across the region with a growing focus on natural gas as an alternative to burning coal for power. Dominion says the compressor station planned for Bryans Road, MD, would connect to existing underground pipelines to pump new natural gas supplies to the Panda Mattawoman Energy Project, which is planned to be built in Prince George’s County, MD.
The station is part of a project that Dominion says on its website “will bring much-needed new natural gas supplies” to the region that includes Charles County, MD, and Mount Vernon, which Bradburn said is heated by a mix of electricity and natural gas.
Dominion has won at least one other battle over whether it can place energy infrastructure within sight of historic properties. On a portion of the James River near Williamsburg, an effort fell short last summer to protect a trio of historic sites from the view of a power line spanning the river. Despite opposition from historic preservation groups — that portion of the river landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of endangered places in 2013 — the project received final federal approval, though lawsuits from preservation groups are pending.
Coulson said the Ladies’ Association had been meeting with Dominion officials as recently as the day before the press conference and wants to help the utility find an alternative location for the compressor station. Those requests seemed to fall on more open ears after local media outlets covered their opposition.
Several U.S. presidents are among the more than 87 million people that have visited Mount Vernon over the years, the most recent being President and First Lady Trump.
Bradburn stood with the Trumps on Mount Vernon’s piazza during the April visit of French President Emmanuel Macron — and brought up with Trump the risk of a pair of exhaust stacks appearing on the horizon.
“The president said, ‘This should be preserved. This is fantastic,’” Bradburn said.