“People are annoyed that they aren’t being heard,” said Claudia Thompson-Deahl, the Reston Association’s (RA) environmental resource manager. She said a large group of citizens are concerned about the maintenance work Virginia Dominion Power (Dominion Power) is doing along the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which is soon to come to Reston.
Barbara Hildreth, the W&OD Task Force chairperson, said, "The frustration is we haven't been heard." She said Dominion Power is consistent in stating the same reasons for their work, seven months after the task force was formed. She thought the issues would be resolved in the summer, but suggestions and questions from residents are often unanswered by Dominion Power. Hildreth hopes a documented set of guidelines, a policy and procedures manual, can be agreed to. The manual would express a statement of expectations on how Dominion Power would conduct maintenance along the W&OD Trail.
Dominion Power is set to begin tree cutting along the W&OD Trail in the Reston area before the end of spring, said Le-Ha Anderson, the manager of community and media relations for Dominion Power.
Although the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA) owns the land the trail occupies, Dominion Power owns the right of way on the property affecting its power lines, which run along the trail. When the NVRPA bought the land to become the W&OD Trail, Dominion Power secured a 100-foot easement, giving the company control of the land around the power lines. The easement limits trees under the power lines to be no taller than 15 feet. A three-year maintenance cycle includes trimming or removal of trees it deems necessary to provide safe service to its customers.
Hildreth said she never anticipated this would become a problem, as the power company had always had the legal right to do this, but never did. "They don't have a moral right to do it," she said.
THIS YEAR’S MAINTENANCE, however, is drawing a wave of criticism from Reston residents who witnessed the company’s work along the trail in Vienna. Thompson-Deahl said she understands some maintenance has to be done but that Dominion Power is pursuing a policy in this case, which is too aggressive. “Don’t take my word for it,” she said, “walk the trail and see what’s coming.”
Thompson-Deahl is concerned that the tree cutting will cause a loss of habitat, loss of screening and a loss of physical beauty the trail currently possesses. She said some of the wildlife would lose its natural habitat if trees were cut, while the owners of private properties along the trail would lose the screen between their properties and those out on the trail.
Speaking at a town hall meeting held by state Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36) and state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) on Wednesday, Jan. 5, Thompson-Deahl said an estimated 2,000 trees are to be cut in Reston. “We will end up with an asphalt road instead of a shaded trail,” she said.
Since many residents are concerned about the maintenance work, Thompson-Deahl called her representatives to see what can be done to make a compromise with Dominion Power and how the maintenance is done. She said Plum and Howell were responsive and set up a meeting with representatives from Dominion Power to be held Wednesday, Feb. 9, at the RA main office, 1930 Isaac Newton Square, at 7 p.m. Anderson said the representatives from Dominion Power will tell the public what it is they are doing on the trail and why they are doing it that way. Since Plum and Howell will be unable to attend the meeting, because they are in Richmond attending the General Assembly session, Hildreth was asked to chair the meeting.
ANDERSON SAID she does not know how Thompson-Deahl estimated that 2,000 trees would be taken down. She said Dominion Power decided to look at the trees in Reston to figure out if the number is accurate and the initial look at the trail shows that at most 650 trees are to be cut. Between the Herndon town limit and Hunter Mill Road, Dominion Power owns 49 spans of wire along the W&OD Trail. A span is a section of a line from one pole to another. Trees, according to Dominion Power, are considered to be 5 inches, or larger, in diameter. The initial look at the numbers revealed an expected 250 trees to be cut because they are underneath the power lines. Another 100 trees would be cut beside the lines and 300 are considered to be danger trees. Danger trees are those leaning toward the lines or toward another tree that could impact the power lines or are in danger of falling on the lines themselves.
Thompson-Deahl said Dominion Power had done maintenance work along the trail for years, but the difference between previous work and work currently under way in Vienna is that the company used to take down only what was necessary. Anderson acknowledged the change in the maintenance. She said Dominion Power is forced to pursue a stricter maintenance by three governing bodies that “watch what we do very carefully.”
“The problem is,” said Anderson, “we are no longer making compromises, because we cannot afford to.” She said in the past individuals were able to bargain with the company about the future of certain trees, but that is no longer possible.
The State Corporation Commission (SCC), said Anderson, did a study of how Dominion Power could provide better service to its customers. The study concluded there was insufficient maintenance of right of way, and the need for more trimming. The SCC consequently mandated Dominion Power to maintain its right of way. The other two governing bodies Dominion Power reports to on the status of its right of way are the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC).
Three events caused Dominion Power to undertake a more aggressive approach to the maintenance of its right of way. An ice storm in 1989, said Anderson, left thousands of customers without power when many trees and limbs fell on power lines. The North East Blackout in August of 2003, and finally Hurricane Isabelle in September of the same year also left thousands of Dominion Power's customers without power for an extended period of time.
However, Hildreth said the power company started its tree removal work prior to the events in 2003. Hildreth said she is used to fighting for the trail, as she was involved in the initial fight over who would get the right of way on the territory once the railroad was abandoned. The power company and those fighting for the trail reached an agreement, and the territory was bought for $4 million to construct the trail, while the company retained a 100-foot easement to manage its power lines. "It was a good working relationship," said Hildreth, "everybody was happy about it, until two years ago."
What happened two years ago, said Hildreth, is that Dominion Power adopted a new policy, if the tree is touched it will be cut down, not trimmed. She said the new policy will eliminate the cost Dominion Power incurs for maintaining the trail. If the company cares about public image, she said, then the cost is worth the maintenance.
She also said the SCC claimed no jurisdiction over the issue, when it responded to a letter regarding the W&OD Trail management by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
PAUL McCRAY manages the W&OD Trail for NVRPA and has done so for the last 19 years. In that time, McCray said he saw one tree fall on the power lines. It was a healthy oak tree that was uprooted during Hurricane Isabelle, because it was near a creek and the ground was saturated. McCray added Dominion Power had not trimmed that particular tree in the past. Had it done so, he said, it is likely the tree would have fallen away from the lines. Many trees are trimmed more heavily on one side, so that if a tree falls, it falls away from the lines because its weight is shifted to the other side.
“The system they had worked,” said McCray of Dominion Power's previous maintenance work. However, he said, in January or February of 2003 Dominion Power started maintenance work in Falls Church, and it had changed that system, and is now taking out more than before, said McCray.
Anderson said Dominion Power is working with NVRPA during the maintenance process on the W&OD Trail. In particular, the company is running a tree replacement program, replanting the trees that were cut down with ones that grow slower and not as high. She added a lot of the “danger” trees are located in private property along the W&OD Trail, and the tree replacement program offers those who allow Dominion Power to cut the tree in their property a chance to replant another tree.
She said the problem encountered in Vienna is the company left the area looking bare, but with the tree replacement program, the area will grow trees again. “It will take some time,” she said, “it will look beautiful again.”
McCRAY SAID THE NVRPA works together with Dominion Power, but the Park Authority’s advice is not always taken. He said he argues with Dominion Power over the trees that need to be cut and he feels like they are not leaving trees that could be left. “I don’t win any arguments,” he said.
The NVRPA is working with Dominion Power's foresters to plant trees that are native to the area and grow slower. He said Dominion Power does not want any trees under the lines, but that the NVRPA will work on putting some trees that do not grow higher than 15 feet, to give the area a more natural feel. As far as the company’s work in Vienna goes, he said the area almost looks clear-cut.
Clear-cutting, said Anderson, is by far not what Dominion Power is doing. She said the company is selectively cutting brush and trees to keep the public safe and provide service for its customers.
“We’re not out there to kill trees,” she said.
Anderson added Dominion Power is not doing anything to harm the wildlife, and if one were to walk around the trail where maintenance had already been done, one would still see wildlife. She said the process hurts trees that are trimmed repeatedly, and it is better to remove the tree and replace it, so it would serve as a better source for the natural environment.
Hildreth said she continues to be optimistic. If residents are concerned, she urges them to appeal to Dominion Power or to their legislators.
If residents have comments or questions regarding the maintenance work, Anderson said, they could contact Kathy McDaniel, Dominion Power's forester at 804-257-4904, or Mike Brucato, the team leader, at 804-257-4907.