Inside NOVA: Prince William Power Line: No rest for opponents after Carver Road win

Inside NOVA: No rest for opponents

By:  Alex Koma

September 29, 2017

Dominion Energy may be pulling back from its plans to build a new power line along a controversial route near Carver Road in Gainesville, but opponents warn that there’s no telling how state regulators might determine a path for the project going forward.

The utility sent a letter to the State Corporation Commission on Sept. 22 saying it couldn’t reach any compromise with Prince William County to clear the way for the Carver route for the 230-kilovolt power line. Dominion has been working for the better part of three years to build the infrastructure to power a data center compound in Haymarket off Interstate 66, but county supervisors and community members have pushed back at every turn over concerns about the project’s impact on the environment and private property.

Opposition was particularly strong to the Carver Road route, which state regulators directed Dominion to choose for the project this summer, as it cut through a series of historically black neighborhoods. Accordingly, the county used its ownership of several properties along the route to block Dominion from pursuing it, seemingly sparing the community from any impacts.

Now the company is telling state regulators that it would rather pursue a design for the project that mounts the power line on towers running along I-66, known as the “I-66 Overhead Route.” But it will ultimately be up to the SCC to decide whether to grant that request, and community advocates warn that it’s impossible to know what route regulators might choose.

“We are hopeful, but we just can’t let our guard down,” said Joyce Hudson, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Carver Road and the owner of property along the Carver route. “It’s just been such a wild run here [that] you don’t know what’s going to happen. For now, it looks pretty good, but it’s not over.”

SCC spokesman Ken Schrad agreed that it’s tough to know what the commission might do — he said regulators could ask for more information from all interested parties, simply decide on a new route or even order a rehearing of the whole matter. The community advocates with the Coalition to Protect Prince William County and the Somerset Crossing Homeowners Association are pressing for such a reconsideration to challenge the need for the project, and staffers supporting the commission offered support for some of their arguments late last month.

In the Sept. 22 filing, Dominion’s attorneys argued that the commission should simply choose the overhead option and let the project finally move ahead.

“In sum, the ‘I-66 Overhead Route’ is shorter, less costly, crosses fewer forested lands and results in dramatically less clearing, crosses fewer privately-owned parcels, crosses less battlefield study area, involves fewer waterbody crossings, and impacts less wetland habitat,” the lawyers wrote.

But Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican, disagreed. He noted that the overhead option will still disrupt too much private property for his liking, and said the county is currently hard at work determining whether it controls any property along the route to block this option too.

“That’s what gave us some leverage on the Carver route, so if we can find similar pieces of property on I-66, maybe we can have some here too,” Stewart said.

As always, he said Prince William’s message to Dominion and the SCC will remain clear: “Hybrid all the way.” The “I-66 Hybrid” option would also run alongside the highway, but it would involve burying the power line in some sections — the SCC previously rejected that alternative as it would cost Dominion as much as $100 million more than other routes.

The utility reiterated the hybrid option’s expense in the Sept. 22 filing and suggested that underground power lines may not improve the reliability of service for customers in western Prince William. The company also noted that it will likely be able to build the overhead option “without further authorization” from the county, as long as it can make some small adjustments to the route.

That’s part of why Elena Schlossberg, the executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, is more focused on attacking Dominion’s arguments about the overall need for the project. Her group filed a motion Sept. 22 supporting its arguments for a new SCC hearing on the power line, pressing its case that the utility shouldn’t build the project simply to power the data center (which is owned by VAData, a subsidiary of online retail giant Amazon).

In particular, Schlossberg’s group has been pressing the argument that Amazon may not even need the power line if it doesn’t build the two additional buildings on the data center campus that it originally planned. Schlossberg and several others claimed they heard VAData’s lawyers admit during a March meeting with federal regulators that they may never build those structures, as one building is already up and running.

VAData attorneys wrote a letter claiming that Schlossberg and company misunderstood them in that meeting, but the coalition’s attorneys wrote that the letter admits “that there is no present timetable or concrete plans to actually build” the second and third buildings. Amazon hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment on the project, so there’s little clarity on the matter.

“The letter is very squishy. They never completely deny anything,” Schlossberg said. “It’d be very interesting if these attorneys ever had to go under oath.”

That’s why she so desperately hopes the commission will grant another hearing on the project, where regulators could force testimony from all parties and reconsider its approval of the power line. But Schlossberg admited that “Nobody knows what this process is right now,” and she is baffled as to what the SCC might actually decide.

“Anything is possible right now, and we’re really trying to impress that upon the community,” Schlossberg said. “I think that they’re trying to figure out who’s phoning a friend? How’re they getting out of this?”

Schrad hopes that the SCC will have a decision of some kind ready in “weeks, hopefully not months.” In the meantime, Hudson said her community won’t let its guard down and will continue advocating for the hybrid option, even as Carver Road now seems out of the project’s path.

She said the whole experience has been so difficult for her entire community that she wouldn’t wish it on anyone else living nearby, and she plans to offer any support she can moving forward.

“I know how they would feel if this were happening to another community,” Hudson said. “My grandparents bought this property to have to pass down, and this is our legacy. We don’t have a whole lot, like Amazon and some of these other big corporations, so I’m gonna fight. If you try to take something from me, I’m gonna fight.”