Residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle County voiced concerns about the visual impact of Dominion Virginia Power’s Cunningham-Dooms 500kV transmission line rebuild at two public hearings held Monday by the State Corporation Commission.
The majority of people who spoke in opposition to the proposed rebuild took the greatest issue with the materials Dominion wants to use, specifically plans to use shiny galvanized steel. The existing towers are made of a brown, self-rusting steel called COR-TEN.
Albemarle County Supervisor Ann H. Mallek was the first speaker at an afternoon hearing. She reiterated her skepticism regarding Dominion’s position that COR-TEN can no longer be used in tower construction, a point she raised at a briefing before the Board of Supervisors last week. She also raised concerns about the height of the towers.
“Height is a concern because the company has not been forthcoming with the height changes,” said Mallek. “Without knowledge of the true length of cable and height of towers, the company has no actual evidence about the true cost of the line.”
Supervisor Liz Palmer shared Mallek’s concern about inadequate information on the height of the towers. She said Dominion had promised an elevation map, but no such map has been produced.
“Please don’t let this decision be made without a detailed photo simulation of the project,” said Palmer. She added that the photographs that have been produced thus far are insufficient.
David King, whose family owns King Family Vineyards in Crozet, echoed Mallek and Palmer’s thoughts that Dominion has not made clear the proposed changes to the height of the towers. He spoke strongly against using only estimated average height changes to approximate visual impact.
“The visual assessment using average height can only be misleading. At worst, it could be considered to be fraudulent,” said King. He also said that photographs taken by Dominion to approximate the visual impact on his property were taken from an angle that obscured the majority of the transmission line.
Pressed by hearing examiner Howard P. Anderson Jr., King declined to make an actual accusation of fraud, but he reiterated his view that the use of average height changes and carefully composed photographs is misleading.
Homeowners at both hearings said they were concerned that Dominion had not adequately informed homeowners in impacted areas. Scott Medvetz, a resident of North Garden, said he lives about 1,500 feet from the right-of-way but that the view from his property includes the transmission line, and he said he was not among the approximately 500 property owners who were sent letters about the project.
“It does make one wonder if an effort was made to make sure many affected homeowners would not be aware of the meetings and this project,” said Medvetz.
Those who spoke against the use of galvanized steel suggested using a weathering material like COR-TEN or painting the towers to better blend into the landscape.
“I don’t necessarily disagree with Dominion’s requirement to replace these towers,” said Steven Janes, a Charlottesville resident with a background in electrical engineering. “It appears that this is a boilerplate replacement job. When you have visual and environmental concerns, you must take into account the way the public feels.”
Janes cited a rebuild project on the Susquehanna-Roseland 500kV transmission line running from Pennsylvania to New Jersey as a model to follow. That project was mandated by PJM Interconnection, the same organization with which Dominion is working to plan construction on the Cunningham-Dooms line and, according to Janes, different materials and designs were used for the rebuilt towers based on local input and environmental factors.
“A lot of what attracts people here is the beauty of the county,” said Andrew Carter, who owns land near where the transmission line crosses Route 20. “A step in the diminishment of the charming rural vistas [is] an externality, we take an incremental hit in our property values by having a blight on the landscape, and that’s a cost Dominion doesn’t pay, but they still reap profits.”
In total, 12 people of a total audience of about 35 spoke at the 2 p.m. hearing, and 11 people of a total audience of about 30 spoke at the 7 p.m. hearing. Virtually all of those who spoke said they would prefer the use of a material that blends into the surrounding landscape, while no one said they were absolutely opposed to the rebuild, regardless of impact.
Individuals spoke on behalf of the Preservation Virginia Public Policy Committee, the Albemarle County Department of Community Development, Scenic Virginia, the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, Preservation Piedmont and the Piedmont Environmental Council.
Former Albemarle Supervisor Sally Thomas, speaking on behalf of Scenic Virginia, noted that similar towers would be required by county ordinance to be made of dulled material if they were cellphone towers.
“We’re not naive in our request that Dominion take into account scenic values. But we all know that duller finishes do exist. When even [the Virginia Department of Transportation] will bow to local pressure and use duller finish on safety rails when they are asked to, why not do what we know is the right thing?” asked Thomas.
At several points throughout the afternoon hearing, Anderson told the landowners who spoke that he would like to schedule visits to their properties to see the potential impact firsthand. He added at the 7 p.m. hearing that he would visit the properties of any landowners who requested it to better inform the SCC decision-making process.