by James A. Bacon
In its high-stakes effort to win regulatory approval to build a 500 kV electric transmission line to the Virginia Peninsula, Dominion Virginia Power proposed in December to spend $85 million to mitigate the project’s impact on historical and environmental resources. That’s over and above the estimated $155 million cost to build the 7.7-mile line, which Dominion says is critical to maintain a reliable electric supply to nearly 500,000 residents from Williamsburg to Hampton.
Measures in the draft Memorandum of Agreement submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would do nothing to alter the visual intrusion of the 17 towers crossing the James River near Jamestown. But it would allocate $52.7 million to underwrite archaeological work and other improvements in and around Jamestown Island, $15.6 million for water quality improvements, $12.5 million for landscape and battlefield conservation, and $4.2 million to acquire wetlands, restore shorelines and preserve historical resources nearby.
Dominion’s proposal is being circulated for feedback, and there is no guarantee that it will be accepted by the Army Corps, which is charged with considering the adverse impact of the project on wetlands and historic assets. In the view of some conservationists, nothing can make up for the cluttering of view sheds in and around Jamestown, one of the most important historical sites in American history.
Whatever the Army Corps decides, the MOA still represents a watershed in Virginia regulation. It would be one of the largest sums, perhaps the largest sum, ever proposed to offset the impact of a Virginia utility project on environmental, historic or cultural resources.
“We’ve not conducted an exhaustive file search, but [I] suspect that few final mitigation proposals to resolve adverse effects to historic resources associated with a Corps permit have exceeded a total cost of $85 million,” says Mark W. Haviland, chief of public affairs for the Army Corp’s Norfolk office.
Few spots resonate in the Virginia psyche like Jamestown does, but the state is chockablock with historical sites, cultural sites, landscapes, wildlife habitats and view sheds that many would like to preserve from development. As Bacon’s Rebellion documented recently (see “Clash of Competing Values“), these intangible resources have become so ubiquitous that it is increasingly difficult for energy companies to build gas pipelines or electric transmission lines without crossing multiple assets.
Decades ago, routing pipelines and transmission lines wasn’t the complex task that it is today. It was a relatively straightforward exercise to calculate the fair-market value of farmland, timberland and houses to compensate landowners for lost economic value. But the determinants of economic value for land have evolved. Increasingly, Virginians in rural areas purchase property for the views they offer or the natural habitat they conserve, not for their ability to extract income. Moreover, various public and private entities are identifying habitats and view sheds as worth protecting — historical sites and districts; federal, state and local parks; scenic highways and scenic rivers; private conservation easements and public conservation zones; and wetlands, wildlife habitat and more.
Can a price tag be put on an acre of habitat for the rare Cow Knob Salamander? How much is it worth to preserve the view from James Madison’s library window at Montpelier? What is the value of an obscure Civil War battlefield such as the indecisive 1864 cavalry clash at Samaria Church in Charles City County?
Much of the conflict between utilities and conservationists stems from regulators’ inability to value intangible assets that loom large in nearly every project, thus making it impractical for utilities to pay meaningful compensation. Dominion’s proposal is significant because it attempts to offset the adverse visual impact on Jamestown-area historical resources by funding the creation of non-visual benefits.
Both utility executives and their foes acknowledge the trade-offs between economic growth, jobs and profits on the one hand and hard-to-value historical, cultural and environmental assets. The great public policy question is what weight should be given to one and what weight to the other.
For years Virginia was a “a manufacturing powerhouse,” says Margaret Fowler, co-founder of the Save the James Alliance and one of the more outspoken foes of the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line project. “We were undeveloped, we needed power, we needed factories. Industrialization happened. At some point … we became sensitive to what we were losing — air quality, water quality, visual beauty. Has the pendulum swung too far? I don’t think so. But I understand the dilemma.” Continue reading