No Change at the Pumps

No Change at the Pumps

Federal law preempts any changes to the gas pumping station on Route 7.

Sometime in the 1950s, a natural gas transmission station was built on Leesburg Pike, just south of Utterback Store Road.

The County's Zoning Ordinance was established almost 20 years later, in 1978. According to the zoning ordinance, such a station would require a special exception in order to operate, however, since the building predates the ordinance, it was grandfathered, according to Department of Planning and Zoning Staff Reports.

Fairfax County prefers to have land comport with the ordinance, so the county asked the current owners of the station to apply for the special exception. "Special Exception approval is requested to legitimize this existing regulator building," states the staff report.

"We initiated it at the County's request," said Linda Broyhill, attorney for the Columbia Gas Transmission Corporation.

The company wanted to be a good neighbor, Broyhill said, and applied for the special exception.

Special Exceptions, however, always have conditions attached to them. In this case, county planners had asked for, among other things, trees to be planted along Route 7 to screen the facility, restrictions on parking and granting the Virginia Department of transportation easements for the planned widening of Route 7.

The trees, however, would have been planted on top of the high-pressure gas lines along the road, Broyhill said. "We can't put trees in our pipelines," she said, noting the potential for roots to damage the lines.

The restriction on the number of vehicles might prohibit the company from responding to an emergency, Broyhill said. "They wanted an absolute condition and we said, 'No,'" Broyhill said. "If you want us to have a special exception, fine, but don't attach any conditions."

Fairfax County was hesitant to permit no conditions. 'We didn't want to set the precedent of having a Special Exception with out any conditions," said Planning Commissioner Nancy Hopkins (Dranesville).

While this was going on, Broyhill found that the County didn't actually have any authority over the facility. The gas lines, Broyhill argued, represent interstate commerce, which, according to the United States Constitution, can only be regulated by Congress.

Broyhill further argued that the U.S. Natural Gas Act gives the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission jurisdiction over the site. Therefore, the county does not have standing to refuse to allow the station to operate. "We said, 'you can't do that, you're preempted,'" Broyhill said.

The Fairfax County Office of the County Attorney agreed with Broyhill's arguments, according to planning documents.

On Aug. 24, Columbia Gas withdrew their application for the exception. Broyhill said that the company will work with VDOT about the right-of-way issue. Her client does not intend to continue to pursue the Special Exception at this time.