Fairfax County supervisors signed off on a letter to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) Monday asking that Dominion Virginia Power halt treecutting along the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.
The letter, addressed to SCC Chairman Theodore Morrison and signed by Board Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At large) notes the Board's "deep concern over the probable environmental, social and recreational impacts of the line clearance."
As a result, supervisors asked the SCC to direct Dominion to stop cutting trees until a special ad hoc task force charged with examining tree cutting along the trail comes out with a management plan.
Dominion owns an easement along the W&OD trail and runs transmission lines above the path. Since this winter, the company has been cutting trees down along the Fairfax County portion of the 45-mile trail, a marked departure from the previous policy of pruning trees once every three years. The cutting was required by new federal guidelines designed to prevent a repeat of the August 2003 Northeast blackout, which left several million people without power for several days, said Le-Ha Anderson, a Dominion spokesperson. Because one of the causes of the blackout was "improper vegetation" near the transmission lines, federal agencies are keeping a close watch on local utilities to make sure their lines are kept clear, she added. "They want to ensure our transmission lines are being properly maintained."
John Smatlak, a Dominion official, said the company had seen about a dozen outages in the past three years caused by downed trees along the trail.
THE NEW POLICY has proved unpopular among trail users and neighbors, particularly in Vienna, where mature trees provide a welcome "shadescape" from the elements, said Barbara Hildreth, who was involved in creating the trail 30 years ago and who has become one of the most vocal proponents of preserving the trees.
"Their considerations are not whimsical. They're practical things to maintain the integrity of the trail surface for years to come," she said. "There are a lot of older people who walk the trail. If you have a trail without shade, it really isn't a comfortable place to be on a hot summer day. It might sound like a minor point, but all of those things contribute to the pleasure of using the trail."
Hildreth said she was pleased that the Board decided to send the letter to the SCC. But it is unclear how much authority the SCC has over Dominion Virginia Power.
"I'm not sure the commission has direct authority to order Dominion to stop doing something that I think Dominion is doing to ensure reliable electric service," said Ken Schrad, an SCC spokesman. "The commission's charge is to balance the competing interests here: reliable electric service vs. protecting the aesthetic value of the trees along the W&OD trail."
Anderson said the company would take a wait-and-see approach to the Board's letter.
"We're going to see what the SCC directs us to do, but right now we're going to continue our maintenance program."
Dominion has cut trees in the Arlington, Falls Church, Vienna and Reston parts of the trail.
THE W&OD TRAIL is set on an abandoned railroad line that runs from Shirlington to Purcellville. Dominion Virginia Power bought the land for its transmission lines after the rail line was discontinued. In 1974, the Northern Virginia Park Authority started purchasing parts of the trail from the power company. The trail was completed in 1978, but the company retained the right to run and maintain power lines along the trail.
At a meeting last month in Vienna, residents and a Dominion executive agreed to set up an ad hoc task force to reach a consensus that would preserve as many trees as possible while keeping the power lines clear.
Several of the task force's early recommendations ended up in the Board's letter to the SCC. In particular, the task force asked that any potential clearing site be examined by a five-person team composed of the county urban forester, a representative from the Northern Virginia Park Authority, a representative of the contractor doing the clearing, and an engineer and a forester from Dominion.
The team would be able to identify exactly which trees needed cutting and which could be saved and then communicate that to the citizens, said Hildreth, who chairs the group.
"You finally put things in writing," she said. "Nobody's saying that in an emergency they couldn't do the work necessary, but even then there are provisions for consultations with the [county urban] forester."
Del. Stephen Shannon (D-35th), who helped set up the task force, said he believed Dominion executives have made an effort to appease residents, but they haven't stopped chopping down trees.
"There's a lot of cutting going on that may not be necessary," he said.
"We're going to work very closely and diligently with this ad hoc committee to work towards a reasonable middle ground, but ultimately we have a responsibility to deliver safe and reliable energy to our customers," said Anderson, the Dominion spokesperson.