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W&OD Trail Saved

Dominion agrees not to locate power lines on nine miles of the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail.

It was a misty, gray morning, but for supporters of the Washington & Old Dominion Regional Trail, Tuesday was a great day to be on the trail.

That morning, elected officials and activists celebrated Dominion Virginia Power's decision not to use nine miles of wooded trail for a 230-kilovolt transmission line from Leesburg to Hamilton. The power company owns an easement on the W&OD, and already stretches power lines on the trail's eastern 34 miles. While it must include the trail on its application to the State Corporation Commission, Dominion will not recommend it as the ideal location.

"I'm relieved," said Barbara Notar, president of Save the Trail, as she stood in a black trench coat under a sign still exhorting people to "Save the Historic W&OD Trail!" — underscoring the fact that the fight's not over yet.

While Dominion has agreed to pursue an alternative location for a power line rather than nine miles of trail, it was 11 miles of trail that would have been clear-cut by the company's original proposal.

The last two-mile section, from Cochran Mill Road to the Route 15 bypass, presents a tricky situation for an alternative location for power lines due to its proximity to the Leesburg Municipal Airport.

So while most trail users have reason to celebrate, Ken Reid was still wary.

"For those people who live in this part of town, we're still in play," Reid said.

NEWS OF DOMINION'S decision came in the form of a letter from Dominion senior vice president Eva Hardy, sent to state senators Bill Mims (R-33) and Russ Potts (R-27) and Del. Joe May (R-33).

Hardy was one of two Dominion representatives to take a tour of the 11-mile section of trail that would be affected by the proposed line three weeks ago with Notar, Mims and W&OD Trail manager Paul McCray. For those present, the experience seemed to be the turning point in the effort to convince Dominion officials of the trail's potency.

"I think that was a key day in this battle," Mims said, and joked, "Paul got a lot of frowns from trail users while driving the van."

"[Hardy] talked a lot about what she saw and how different it was from the eastern portion," McCray said. "I think Miss Hardy really saw how beautiful that section of the trail was and what would be lost."

Dominion originally had plans to submit an application to the SCC in November; now, that step is tentatively scheduled for early 2005. According to Hardy's letter, the company has hired a consultant to look into overhead power line routes along Route 7 and in the area south of Leesburg.

While Dominion representatives have repeatedly ruled out underground lines as an option, some others still think it's viable.

"The SCC is beginning a study right now of the feasibility of underground lines on a statewide basis, and I think this would be a great pilot program for that," Mims said.

May, an electrical engineer himself, has been the elected official most in touch with the challenges of power line extensions and has spent the most time talking with Dominion and Virginia Department of Transportation engineers. He has spoken with VDOT officials about the possibility of using routes 7 and 704, which would require VDOT right of way.

"They're very protective of their right of way, but if you're going to bury it, that turns out to be the most attractive option," May said, adding that he was "encouraged" by his talks with VDOT.

FOR PARK OFFICIALS, the W&OD Trail-vs.-Dominion experience has buoyed spirits.

"Sometimes something very negative brings out something very positive," said Gary Fenton, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which owns and operates the trail. After 34 years in parks, he added, "sometimes we think that no one cares."

But when the W&OD Trail was threatened, "they stepped up to the plate from every corner of northern Virginia," Fenton said. "That was very gratifying."

For McCray, who has been a soft-spoken but crucial figure in the battle against Dominion, the news means one thing.

"Now I can get back to the fun stuff on the trail," he said.