Virginia Supreme Court Deals Power Plan Setback

     RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the state’s largest electric utility needs local approval for a crucial piece of a proposed power line it plans to raise above the historic James River.
     In a closely watched case, the court ruled that a planned switching station for the 500 kilovolt transmission line must win approval of James City County officials, and that the State Corporation Commission was wrong when it found that Dominion Virginia Power didn’t need such an authorization.
     The utility has long maintained the switching station is a key component of the project.
     Despite dealing that blow to the project, the opinion handed down by the state’s highest court didn’t wasn’t all bad news for supporters of the project.
     The court unanimously upheld the commission’s certificate of approval for the project, agreeing that Dominion had reasonably minimized potential adverse impacts to important historic sites in the state, including Jamestown Island.
     Some opponents of the plan have argued that by disrupting the sightlines of several mid-eighteenth century National Historic Landmarks in the vicinity, the transmission lines will have negative effect on the county’s tourist industry.
     According to the Save the James Alliance, a preservationist group formed to oppose of the project, Dominion plant to raise 17 lattice-style transmission towers, and that four of the towers will be 295-feet tall – “the height of the Statue of Liberty,” the group says.
     Dominion says the project, which will be built mainly on county land near a body of water called Skiffes Creek, will serve to improve electricity outages in the Eastern Virginia region, citing in particular its need for nearby military facilities.
     On Nov. 26, 2013, the Virginia State Corporation Commission approved one of two proposed routes, favoring the one they felt best addressed “environmental and economic development considerations.”
     But no one was entirely happy and both Dominion and project opponents immediately
     appealed the decision.
     In affirming the commission’s certificate of approval, Justice Leroy Millette Jr. wrote that the record “is not without evidence to support the Commission’s choice of location for the route in light of all competing considerations.”
     But the court’s narrow ruling — it was split 4-3 – potentially sets the stage for a showdown between Dominion and James City County, which has been one of the leaders of the opposition.
     As for the switching station, Millete said although lawmakers in the state’s General Assembly exempted transmission lines from local zoning, the legislature granted no such exemption for switching stations, something they could have done with “ease.”
     “The plan language of Code § 56-46.1(F) does not reflect manifest intent on the part of the General Assembly to exempt switching stations from local zoning ordinances,” he wrote. “The Commission therefore committed a mistake of law.”
     In a dissenting opinion in which he was joined by Chief Justice Donald Lemons and Justice Elizabeth McClanahan, Justice William Mims said he believed the commission had been right when it came to the switching station.
     “I believe the relevant question is whether a facility is designed to facilitate transmission or to facilitate distribution or to facilitate generation of electricity within the Commonwealth,” Mims wrote. “Clearly, the Skiffes Creek Switching Station is designed to facilitate, and in fact is integral to, the transmission of electricity. The Commission’s practical construction gives effect to the function-based distinctions established by the General Assembly. Moreover, it adheres to the well-established principles of statutory construction. For these reasons, I would affirm the decision of the Commission with respect to its interpretation and application of Code § 56-46.1(F).
     “Dominion is pleased to see the Supreme Court of Virginia’s unanimous upholding of the State Corporation Commission’s Order approving the proposed transmission linear route, including the 500 kV overhead James River crossing, and is continuing to move forward with construction plans for this critical infrastructure so that reliable electric service in the region can be maintained,” Dominion spokesperson Robert E. Richardson told Courthouse News.
     “We will continue to assess our multiple options regarding the switching station portion of the transmission line,” Richardson said.
     According to Dominion’s website, it must still obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before beginning construction on the project.
     But Save the James Alliance considers the Supreme Court ruling a small victory in their upriver battle against the largest utility company in Virginia.
     “Our belief that the VA SCC erred when it abetted Dominion in its unprecedented land grab attempt, by stating that a switching station is a part of a transmission system, was confirmed when the Virginia Supreme Court issued its opinion this week, reversing and remanding the SCC’s Final Order on this important legal issue,” the Save the James Alliance wrote on their website following the decision.
     The James City County Economic Development Committee did not return Courthouse News’ request for statement.

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