by James A. Bacon
I was chatting the other day with a friend, a William & Mary professor living in Williamsburg, about the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line project (see “An Intractable Dilemma“). Despite the high stakes involved, he said, he hadn’t paid much attention to the controversy, finding it hard to generate sympathy for a bunch of rich retirees in Kingsmill Resort raising a ruckus about their viewsheds.
His response amused me, for the controversy whirling around Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed construction of a 500 kV transmission line across a historic stretch of the James River is a lot more consequential than the views enjoyed by a few rich guys living on the river. The transmission line, designed to head off rolling blackouts for some 500,000 people living on the Virginia Peninsula, would traverse the closest thing that many Virginians have to sacred ground — “Virginia’s founding river,” as one foe described it to me.
I totally understand the concerns of the transmission line foes — even those of millionaires sipping martinis on the patios of their mansions as they soak up the river views. Plutocrats are people, too. But after several years of writing about controversial infrastructure projects in Virginia — highways, gas pipelines, transmission lines — I worry whether we have created institutional gridlock. At the rate we’re going, it will be impossible to build almost anything anymore.
The U.S. 460 Connector project was done in by wetlands. The U.S 29 Bypass ran into a buzzsaw of opposition engendered in part by fears that automobile exhaust would harm the health of children in nearby schools. (For what it’s worth, I was highly skeptical of both projects on economic grounds.) Now two proposed gas pipelines are being contested on a variety of grounds, the most potent of which is that, even though the pipelines are underground, landowners can’t abide the grassy right-of-way above ground. Businesses can’t even build wind turbines in the state because they’ll ruin the natural beauty of mountain ridges.
Think of all the project disqualifiers out there: wetlands, archaeological sites, old burial grounds, rivers, streams, wells, eagles’ nests, sturgeon breeding grounds, Indian tribal territories, schools, historical sites, and mountain ridge lines — and that’s just off the top of my head. Making the problem immeasurably worse for anyone wanting to build infrastructure, everyone’s got a viewshed and everyone wants to keep it as pristine as possible on the not-unreasonable grounds that the intrusion of ugly industrial infrastructure will hurt their property values. If eagles’ nests and burial grounds put thousands of acres off limits to development, view sheds rope off thousands of square miles.
There’s a philosophical issue worth exploring here. Whose viewshed matters? When Captain John Smith set foot upon Jamestown Island, Virginia was pristine. Waves of settlers descended upon the colony and chopped down much of the forest. No one objected (other than the Indians, and the least of their problems was the loss of picturesque views). Then came railroads and industry, but no one protested the loss of viewsheds. Then came roads and highways, and no one objected to them either. It wasn’t until the development of zoning codes and the growth of the environmental and conservation movements that viewsheds became a matter of concern. In the past few decades a new definition of property rights has come into play — the right to a view, asserted by the guy who got there first, over other peoples’ property. Call it the Rule of Firsties.
I’m far more sympathetic to property owners who want to preserve view sheds on their own land from disruption caused by utilities requiring easements, as is typically the case with property owners fighting the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines. These people should be compensated for their loss of property values. I’m less sympathetic to those who assert a right to views of other people’s property. (In the case of the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line, the controversy is mainly over the view shed of the river, a commons.)
That reminds me of a story about the hamlet of Waterford, a community in Loudoun County that had preserved its character intact since the days of its founding by Quakers in the 18th century. The houses fronted on charming small-town streets; the back yards looked upon bucolic farmland. Several years ago, a developer acquired (or threatened to acquire) a neighboring farm and proposed developing a subdivision there. Talk about disrupting a viewshed! What made Waterford residents different from others is that they didn’t sue to deprive the developer his right to build on his property. If I recall the story rightly, they raised money to buy out his property and set up a trust to preserve their viewshed in perpetuity.
Waterford did not invoke the Rule of Firsties. But across Virginia, other people are doing so. As long as Virginia’s population and economy continue growing, we will need new roads, pipelines, transmission lines and other infrastructure. We have to find a way to build these things. At the same time, Virginia is a state that values history and property rights. We do not achieve progress by trampling historic sites or property rights. Finding the right balance will be difficult. It helps to remember that the tension between property owners and utilities is built into the nature of things. There are no angels or demons here, just people trying to do the right thing.