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Dominion Power Eyes Reston Trees Along W&OD

Dominion Virginia Power wants to cut down thousands of trees along the Reston portion of the W&OD Trail.

On a hot summer day, there are few things BJ Silvey enjoys more than a bike ride along the shady Reston segment of the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail.

But next summer, Silvey and other Reston residents who love the 45-mile trail, probably will no longer have the luxury of shaded pathways.

"On a warm day, it's beautiful out there on the trail," Silvey said. "But if the power company gets their way, it's going to be like riding through an asphalt parking lot."

Dominion Virginia Power, which owns the right-of-way for its power lines that run along the trail, is scheduled to start cutting down thousands of trees in Reston early next year.

The company says it needs to remove all the trees near its lines to decrease the chances of major power outages.

"We have a responsibility to bring reliable electricity service to our customers," said Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion spokeswoman.

FOR THE LAST 27 years, Dominion would periodically send work crews out to trim trees that were threatening its power lines. But in January 2003, the Richmond-based, $12.1 billion corporation decided it needed to expand its power line preservation efforts and remove the majority of the trees altogether.

The major ice storm in 1999 left thousands of Dominion's customers without power. Anderson said cutting down risky trees would prevent that from happening again. She also cited power outages for many of Dominion's 2.1 million Virginia subscribers during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 that were caused by downed trees.

The federal government has also asked utilities like Dominion to trim trees more aggressively after the August 2003 power blackout left 50 million people without power in eight Northeastern states.

"We're looking at this from a long-term, big picture perspective," Anderson said.

SILVEY, a member of the nonprofit advocacy organization Friends of the W&OD, is one of a small number of Reston residents working to prevent the widespread loss of the trail's beloved redbuds, dogwoods and sassafras trees.

"There are certain areas we absolutely need to preserve," Silvey said. "Dominion would essentially come through and ruin those areas."

Specifically, Silvey hopes Dominion will spare the trees near the Bowman mansion and duck pond, a historic corridor that predates the founding of Reston. The Bowman estates were home to a whiskey distillery following prohibition and the pond has long been a serene spot amidst the bustling development of North Reston.

Silvey said he would like to save even more trees, but it appears Dominion already has its mind made up.

"Unfortunately, they have the law on their side," he said. "And their attitude is basically that we're going to do this no matter what."

DOMINION has been cutting down trees along the W&OD segment between Vienna and Reston since March. Work crews should be turning Reston trees into wood chips starting in late January or early February.

Last week, Dominion officials met with concerned Vienna and Reston residents and representatives from the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which operates and maintains the W&OD.

"The bottom line is that a lot of our trees are going to be gone," said Paul McCray, the park authority's trail manager. "They want to get rid of everything with the potential to grow. Some spots in Reston are going to be hit very, very hard."

Reston Association and the park authority are locating as many trees as possible they believe might be saved from Dominion's chain saws.

"We're trying to save what we can save," said Claudia Thompson-Deahl, RA's environmental resource manager. "It's pretty sad actually. It's sort of a frustrating situation."

DOMINION OFFICIALS said they understand the desire for tall trees along the trail, but the risk of outages and safety concerns outweigh the desire for shade.

Anderson also said it is unhealthy for trees to be frequently trimmed. And by replacing the trees with short trees and shrubs, the trail will still be an animal-friendly habitat and aesthetically pleasing, she said.

"We're looking at what's healthiest for the environment, not just what is best for us economically," she said.

But critics believe Dominion is less worried with safety and preventing power outages and more concerned about paying contractors to trim trees every three years.

"Bottom line, this is all about money," Silvey said. "It's all deregulation and commercialization. What was once a public utility is now a profit-seeking corporation."

McCray said he is also skeptical of Dominion's motives, having seen that effective trimming protects the power lines and preserves the natural beauty of the trail.

"Rather than trimming the mature trees, they are aggressively cutting them down," he said. "But there was only one time in my 19 years here that a wire was brought down by a tree."