By Alex Koma firstname.lastname@example.org
Feb 10, 2017
A seemingly obscure bill making its way through the General Assembly has caught the attention of Prince William County lawmakers and environmental advocates alike, as concerns grow that the legislation could end up affecting the controversial Dominion power line project in Haymarket.
Del. Greg Habeeb, R-8th District, and Sen. Bill Stanley, R-20th District, are currently backing identical bills with the decidedly technical goal of giving the regulators at the State Corporation Commission the authority to approve the construction of 138-kilovolt power lines and their associated facilities, independent of any local zoning ordinance. But some in Prince William fear that Dominion’s outsized influence in Richmond could spur lawmakers to amend the bill to include the company’s 230-kilovolt power line project, which many believe is designed to primarily serve the expansion of an Amazon data center.
“These bills get amended very quickly and amended on the floor, and that’s the concern–that that’s their tactic,” said County Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville. “There’s a strong belief that they’re looking to strip the authority on this from the local governing body, and as a conservative, I reject that.”
Elena Schlossberg, executive director of the “Coalition to Protect Prince William County,” has spent months battling Dominion’s efforts to build the 120-foot poles associated with the project and she is similarly worried that this legislation is merely a “Trojan horse for Dominion to latch onto at some later date.”
“It goes through the process, and then it gets amended, and oh, look at that, wasn’t that convenient,” Schlossberg said. “It’s moving very fast, which is how these bad things happen. It’s very difficult and complicated for citizens to keep up and protect themselves.”
Habeeb counters that his bill “unequivocally, 100 percent has nothing to do” with Dominion’s Haymarket project, and he pledged to strike it from consideration if it’s ever amended.
He said he introduced the legislation merely to clear up some imprecise language in a recent Virginia Supreme Court ruling, as he works to speed the construction of 138-kilovolt lines in his Southwestern Virginia district.
“Nobody around here can imagine how it’s gotten this way in Northern Virginia about this bill,” Habeeb said.
The delegate pointed out the General Assembly passed a law in 2007 to give state regulators the authority to issue permits for 138-kilovolt lines, which the Appalachian Power Company primarily uses in its service areas. Since then, Habeeb said, “property owners have been fine, the utility company’s been fine, the localities have been fine,” especially since local governments are still “considered interested parties” in the permitting process.
But in 2012, lawmakers passed a bill to give localities permitting power in some cases, and speed the approval of those lines for “economic development purposes,” Habeeb noted.
So when state regulators tried to bypass the local approval of a power line in James City County, the state Supreme Court blocked those efforts. The justices observed that the 2007 law does give the State Corporation Commission authority to approve the lines themselves, but it doesn’t cover any other facility involved in their operation, like a switching station. For those buildings, the court ruled that localities have full authority to oversee their construction.
Habeeb said he wants his bill to correct that oversight, and put the approval of any facility for those sorts of power lines squarely within the authority of state regulators.
“This isn’t granting the SCC new power; this is exactly what the SCC has been doing since 2007,” Habeeb said. “All this does is implement what’s been the law since at least 2007 and has never been a problem in a single 138 project. Dominion didn’t ask for this bill, didn’t lobby this bill, they didn’t know about this bill, they don’t care about this bill.”
A Dominion spokesman did stress that the legislation “doesn’t impact” the company. But Habeeb can appreciate why so many in Prince William are still suspicious about his intentions.
“I totally understand where the folks who are objecting come from, both philosophically and historically,” Habeeb said. “These are literally existential issues for people, and I understand that. But none of the constituents actually affected by this bill are complaining about it. It’s ironic that the people who this bill is literally drafted to affect aren’t complaining, and the people who the bill literally can have no impact on are upset about some hidden agenda that’s not there.”
Yet Habeeb’s myriad arguments still don’t hold water with Schlossberg. She believes Habeeb and Stanley are trying to “circumvent” the Supreme Court’s ruling rather than clarify any law, and she’s fearful the bills could be changed at any point during the legislative process, including the potential review of any final legislation by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“There is cynicism, and it’s there for a reason,” Schlossberg said. “When you have a power company come into your community and lie to you about why they’re putting in this massive transmission line, there’s no trust, nor should there be at this point.”
Indeed, skepticism about Dominion’s motives and political power in Richmond undergirds the whole debate. The company is regularly one of the top donors to legislators of both parties, even prompting a bill from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-34th District, to ban political contributions from regulated monopolies like Dominion. Though Petersen had to withdraw the bill due to stiff opposition, it attracted support from across the aisle, including Denver Riggleman, a Central Virginia businessman and Republican candidate for governor.
“This is a private business that has so much control over the General Assembly that it’s exercising the state’s powers for its own benefit,” said Corey Stewart, at-large chairman of Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors and a Republican gubernatorial candidate. “That’s what disturbs me about that so much.”
Habeeb and Stanley have certainly benefited from Dominion’s largesse over the years — state records show that since joining the House in 2011, Habeeb’s accepted $12,500 from the company, while Stanley’s taken in $19,500 over the same time period.
“The fact that Dominion gives so much money to these delegates and senators should not go unremarked, and there isn’t anyone that doesn’t believe that corrupts the process,” Schlossberg said.
But Habeeb remains steadfast that the bill only has to do with his constituents, noting that it would be “a totally inefficient vehicle for (Dominion) to try to advance some backdoor policy” since it doesn’t even deal with the section of the state code governing higher voltage power lines like the ones slated for construction in Haymarket.
Even still, the bill’s opponents want to defeat the bill now, rather than take any chance. Schlossberg noted that the Virginia Municipal League’s come out in opposition to both bills, encouraging other localities to join the fight against the legislation, and her group is hoping to inundate the email inboxes of legislators to make their voices heard.
Yet the legislation is rapidly nearing McAuliffe’s desk — both bills are now up for review by the opposite chamber from where they were introduced, clearing the General Assembly’s “crossover” deadline on Feb. 7.
If they’re approved, Habeeb expects they’ll have an easy path to the governor, since there aren’t any differences between the two bills for lawmakers to work out.
But Schlossberg is optimistic that the legislation won’t ultimately get that far, given the intense interest it’s generated in recent weeks.
“It needs to be defeated now,” Schlossberg said. “There’s no way we’ll just hope that they don’t amend it.”
PWCLiberty: Feb 11, 2017 9:59am