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Battle Lines Drawn

Trail advocates use extra time given by Dominion's decision to rein in application process to prepare for battle ahead.

While Dominion Virginia Power officials have decided to slow the planning process for a proposed 230-kilovolt transmission line to Hamilton, opponents of the line, Save the Trail, Inc., have gone on the offensive.

The group, which was formed earlier this year in response to Dominion's announcement that the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail was the most attractive option for the transmission line, has redoubled its efforts in recent weeks.

A spokesperson for Dominion confirmed that the power company's decision to cancel a pair of September public workshops and potentially delay the company's application to the State Corporation Commission until after November was due to public outcry over the plan, which would run overhead lines along 11 miles of the W&OD Trail. Construction of the lines would erase the last wooded vestige of the 45-mile trail, a popular venue for walkers and bikers. Dominion already runs power lines on the eastern portion.

"I think sufficient pressure has been brought to bear on Dominion," said Blake Netherwood, vice president of Save the Trail. "I think originally they might have been thinking they could steamroll this through."

According to Le-Ha Anderson, Dominion's spokesperson, a final decision on whether the November application will be postponed has not yet been made, although a delay is "likely," she said.

"We decided that the schedule we were on ... was just too fast," Anderson said. "We just didn't have enough options on the table."

The company had presented the W&OD Trail and routes 7 and 15 as the only options in a power line task force workshop in August. Dominion will take the extra time to look at additional options, Anderson said.

None of those options will involve underground lines, despite the insistence of trail supporters like supervisors Scott York (I-at large) and Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin). None of these options, either, will eliminate the W&OD Trail from consideration altogether — since Dominion owns an easement along the trail, it is required by law to include it in its application to the SCC, although it can recommend a different option.

The SCC makes the final decision.

MEANWHILE, Save the Trail is taking the extra time to strengthen its case against considering the W&OD Trail as a location for more power lines.

Not only did the organization have a stenographer on hand to record the August workshop, it is also in the process of hiring an attorney, according to Netherwood, who said that Save the Trail already has attorneys working pro bono. If Dominion files an application with the SCC naming the W&OD Trail as the preferred route, Save the Trail plans to contest the application.

But while Save the Trail has been mostly a grassroots effort — according to Netherwood, most funding has come out of members' pockets, with larger-scale fundraising efforts in the works — with the help of state Sen. Bill Mims (R-33), it pulled off something of a coup on Aug. 17.

On that Tuesday, Mims and Save the Trail president Barbara Notar accompanied W&OD Trail manager Paul McCray as he gave an exclusive tour of the trail to two people with some voice in the process: Dominion senior vice president Eva Hardy and Phil Sparks, Dominion senior manager for state and local affairs. The one-hour bus tour traversed from where power lines already dominate the view to the leafy, tree-canopied western portion that would be clear-cut to make way for Dominion's proposed transmission line.

Mims, a frequent trail user, had requested that Dominion send a representative from Richmond to view the W&OD first-hand. He had been in touch with Dominion representatives since the news broke of the company's proposed plan, but noted that the bus tour was an important step.

"This was the first opportunity that Mrs. Hardy had to experience the trail and to really talk personally with someone other than myself," he said.

Mims is encouraged by the results of the tour.

"I believe that a picture says a thousand words," he said. "I believe it was a very good meeting and trek, and I believe they hopefully appreciate why thousands of Loudoun residents believe it's important to preserve the trail."

McCray, too, felt good about the meeting.

"I was very encouraged that they would take the time to come out and see the trail," he said. "It's a long way from Richmond."

Anderson, speaking for Hardy, would not confirm whether experiencing the trail's shaded serenity would change Hardy's or the company's position on the proposed power line.

"I think [Hardy] confirmed what everyone has been saying all along," Anderson said. "It's beautiful, and it's also a location where we have an easement."

IN THE LULL before Dominion makes an official announcement on the timeline of its application to the SCC, Save the Trail and local and state elected officials are continuing to maneuver for the fight ahead.

Del. Joe May (R-33) recently met with Secretary of Transportation Whit Clement in an attempt to secure right-of-way for the power lines on VDOT roadways. Like Mims, he's feeling confident that a change in attitude about the trail from the higher-ups at Dominion is in the works.

"I think they're coming to understand ... that the W&OD Trail is a special place, that destroying it is just not in anybody's interest," May said.

Netherwood is a bit more reserved in his thoughts on Dominion's actions during this reprieve. Like Save the Trail, the company could be gearing up for the fight ahead.

"I would suspect that Dominion is not standing still as well," Netherwood said.