A year after it first announced plans to build a 230-kilovolt transmission line in western Loudoun, Dominion Virginia Power has submitted its application the State Corporation Commission.
The proposed route for the transmission line stretches for 15.7 miles from an existing substation east of Leesburg, south around the city, to a proposed substation east of Purcellville.
The power company has grappled with unhappy citizens, local and state officials in its proposal for the line. Originally, the company announced it would locate the line on the W&OD Trail, a popular walking and biking park that stretches across Northern Virginia.
The transmission line, with its 110-foot steel poles requiring 50 feet of clearance on each side, would have wiped out an estimated 26,000 trees along the W&OD. Dominion already runs transmission lines on the trail's eastern 31 miles. It has owned an easement on the trail since 1968.
The stretch in Ashburn where the lines crackle and the sun beats down without shade is known as the Gobi Desert to regular cyclists.
RESIDENTS QUICKLY ORGANIZED to protect the last wooded miles of the trail. Dominion responded in September by promising not to name at least nine miles of the W&OD as the preferred route for the transmission line.
Save the Trail president Barbara Notar was on the front lines, raising money and public awareness of the trail's value.
When the news came in last Thursday that Dominion had kept its end of the promise to preserve the W&OD Trail, Notar was relieved.
"We were very encouraged that their proposed route doesn't include any of the trail," Notar said. "The entire 11 miles we've been fighting for was not in the route."
But the battle isn't over yet. Because it owns the easement on the trail, Dominion had to explain in its application to the SCC why it isn't recommending the W&OD as the transmission line site. The SCC could very well order Dominion to use the trail anyway after weighing the options in a process that could take two years.
The W&OD option would cost $15 million, according to Dominion estimates, while the current proposed route south of Leesburg will cost $30 million.
"Save the Trail still has a lot of work to do," Notar said, including rallying residents at the SCC's future public hearings to remind the commission that citizens value the trail.
Save the Trail vice president Blake Netherwood is concerned that by recommending the trail not be an option at all, Dominion has created extra work for the organization.
Continuing to raise funds to hire attorneys will be difficult now that the trail appears to be off the table, Netherwood said. And he doubts the SCC will let Dominion dismiss the possibility of using its own easement for the location of the line.
"I'd like to think I can be optimistic," Netherwood said. "I just don't think it's going to happen."
Save the Trail is just one of a handful of organizations that have popped up to keep the transmission line out of residents' backyards. Notar joined one of them when her backyard was named as a study area for a potential route that was eventually dropped from the application. All will be jockeying to convince the SCC not to choose their backyards.
According to Dominion, the proposed route crosses 38 properties where the company would have to purchase an easement from property owners. If an owner refuses to sell, the company can use eminent domain.
DESPITE REPEATED exhortations from the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and Del. Joe May (R-33) and state Sen. William Mims (R-32), as well as residents, Dominion has not included an underground option on its application.
The company, which has more 6,000 miles of overhead lines versus just 35 miles of underground, has claimed that putting an underground line on the W&OD would cost $100 million, a figure that Chairman Scott York disputed. It did not provide estimates for other underground routes.
May worked in tandem with the Virginia Department of Transportation to obtain easements on Routes 7 and 15 for the line with little luck. He also sponsored a bill to allow for the establishment of a special tax district to pay the extra cost of underground if residents agreed. The bill was signed into law this spring.
Throughout the year-long process, Dominion representatives have repeatedly denied that the company would consider building the power line underground, despite the fact that the Board of Supervisors signed a resolution noting their preference for an underground line.
"We have always felt that an overhead transmission line is the most reliable, cost-effective services we can provide our customers," said John Bailey, siting and permitting coordinator for Dominion.
While overhead lines are more susceptible to damage than underground, they can be fixed much more quickly, Bailey said.
THE SCC WILL SET public hearing dates for the transmission line application both in Richmond and Loudoun County. While Dominion presented one preferred route in its 300-plus-page application, it also offered four other possible routes using a combination of areas south of Leesburg and Route 7. The SCC could pick any — or none — of Dominion's routes.
Bailey, however, is fairly confident that Dominion's current preferred route will be selected.
"The SCC may very well change the route," he said. "Typically, they do not. They may tweak it or make modifications or choose an alternative."