Inside NoVa: Supervisors reject both routes for power lines at Haymarket data

By Alex Koma, akoma@insidenova.com

June 2, 2017

Nathan Grayson’s plot of land off Carver Road in Gainesville has been in his family for four generations, dating back to the days when African Americans first gained the right to own property in Prince William County.

But he says a new Dominion Energy power line slated to stretch out to a Haymarket data center would cut right through his home under one plan recommended by state regulators, stripping him of the place he’s lived for the last 51 years.

“No one has knocked on my door or come talked to me about this,” Grayson said in an interview.  “And I have two grandkids; they’re 4 and 11. They won’t own anything in this world unless I can leave this to them. That’s how it was done for me.”

Grayson was one of dozens of Gainesville and Haymarket residents to tell similar stories to Prince William Board of County Supervisors on June 1, as lawmakers considered their response to an interim order from the regulators overseeing the project. The State Corporation Commission gave the project its preliminary approval in April, recommending two possible options for the new 230-kilovolt line: the route that would cut through Grayson’s property, known as the Carver Road alternative, and one that would run alongside a set of railroad tracks in the area.

But the board has consistently opposed those options, preferring instead that Dominion bury the power line along Interstate 66 to avoid any potential damage to the area’s environment and historic landmarks. Supervisors even secured a conservation easement on land along the “railroad route” in an attempt to block that alternative from consideration, but state regulators responded by giving Dominion 60 days to secure the county’s agreement to let the project proceed along that route.

Yet the supervisors voted unanimously at their Thursday night meeting to rebuff the utility’s request and directed county staff to work with state and federal lawmakers to lobby the right regulators to slow the power line project. Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, was absent from the meeting.

“This just shows that we’re not going to fall into the trap of picking one of two bad options,” Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, said in an interview. “We’re going to continue to support our citizens on this.”

The SCC recommended that Dominion pursue the Carver Road route instead, should the supervisors make such a decision–a move that similarly troubles Candland and his fellow board members. But they believe that enough new information about the project has come to light that they can force a reconsideration of the power line construction.

Most notably, the company building the data center ”a subsidiary of online retail giant Amazon” recently told federal regulators that two of the three planned buildings on the site will be able to function without the new power line. Candland recalls the initial documentation the company provided as describing an “urgent need” for the new infrastructure, which he just isn’t seeing at the moment.

“It seems someone was either wrong, or has been deceptive here,” Candland said.

But Dominion officials argue that the power line is necessary for more than just the new data center, as they claim it will improve service in the western section of the county. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently evaluating that assertion and could expand its review of the data center project to include the proposed power line, which may further delay the project.

Other federal regulators have also raised concerns about the data center’s impact on historic resources like the Buckland Mills Battlefield, and some residents argue that the power line project could have a similar impact on areas with historical significance.

E.J. Scott, vice president of Prince William’s chapter of the NAACP, told the board that the area was the first part of the county where African Americans could own land (an assertion Grayson’s family affirmed). Scott also noted that the area has several cemeteries that house the remains of the county’s oldest black families, and argued that the Carver Road route would bring the power line within a few hundred feet of a historic church.

“It’s not acceptable that you not look at African-American history as American history,” Scott said.

County At-Large Chairman Corey Stewart was particularly interested in learning more about that part of the area’s history, and Candland hopes to bring that information to the SCC.

County attorneys caution that the supervisors won’t be able to take any direct legal action against Dominion or Amazon, as Prince William isn’t deemed a “party” to the state regulatory proceedings.

However, the homeowners’ association for the Somerset Crossing neighborhood ”which sits near the path of both recommended routes” is able to appeal the SCC’s ruling, and has already filed a motion asking the regulators to reconsider their decision. All supervisors can do now is lend the neighborhood their support in that endeavor, but residents like Grayson hope that’s enough to make a difference.

“We’re with you, and we’re not going to let the SCC or Dominion divide us,” Stewart told the crowd before adjourning the meeting.