DC Circuit Blocks Power-Line Plan for Historic Jamestown

A statue of Capt. John Smith towers over the location of the 1607 fort in Historic Jamestown, Virginia. (Photo by ROGER GREEN/National Park Service)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Paying homage to the rich history of Jamestown, Virginia, the D.C. Circuit blocked a utility project Friday that would erect power-line towers across the James River.

Though a federal judge had found no fault in May with what today’s ruling terms “the demands of modernity,” the D.C. Circuit today faults the Army Corps of Engineers the Corps for not heeding the stream of public comments that had implored it to carefully study how the project would affect its surroundings.

“In short, the Corps’ assessment of the scope of the project’s effects has drawn consistent and strenuous opposition, often in the form of concrete objections to the Corps’ analytical process and findings, from agencies entrusted with preserving historic resources and organizations with subject-matter expertise,” U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel wrote for a three-person panel.

Tatel determined that construction of the towers would necessarily disrupt “the historic treasures along the river,” whose preservation the government has honored for both historical and environmental purposes.

“Of course, when Captain Smith sailed up the James River in the seventeenth century, he beheld nothing either licensed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or built by Dominion Energy,” Tatel wrote. “In other words, even without blocking the view or dominating the landscape from all angles, the project undercuts the very purpose for which Congress designated these resources: to preserve their ‘unspoiled and evocative landscape[s].” (Brackets in original.)

Dominion Energy applied for permits to build the proposed 250-foot-tall towers in 2013, aiming to put up 17 steel structures supporting 8 miles of power line. Half of those lines would go across the James River and pass close to the historic landmarks like the Jamestown settlement, the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America, which dot the area of Eastern Virginia.

Relying in part on pictures that show the towers superimposed over the current landscape, the Army Corps of Engineers found the project would not have a major negative impact on the historic landmarks in the area and that it therefore did not need to complete a full environmental impact statement.

Several stakeholders argued the opposite, however, with Corps receiving scores of public comments from the National Park Service, a Department of Energy specialist, and a parade of nonprofits and other interest groups.

Despite repeated criticisms of its process in evaluating the project’s impact on the area, the Corps granted the permit to Dominion in 2017, at the same time reaching a memorandum of agreement to make sure the company invested in the state’s historic preservation work.

But the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States were not satisfied, bringing separate suits challenging the permit in July and August 2017, respectively.

The groups praised the D.C. Circuit on Friday for ordering that the permit to Dominion be vacated.

“Today’s ruling is a major victory for the preservation of historic Jamestown and all we continue to learn about this place,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement. “The Army Corps cut corners in approving this permit and Jamestown and the surrounding national park landscape are paying the price. The court’s ruling follows the will of the people and all who care about our national park sites.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to comment, citing a policy concerning pending litigation.

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