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Landowners Fear Ruin From Power Line Route  

The 15-story towers and crackling cables that are planned to cut across the Northern Virginia countryside are just red lines on a map, a paper illustration of what could come.

But for Cameron Eaton, who learned shortly after Thanksgiving that one of the proposed routes for a new high-voltage power line slices across her Fauquier County property, they have already brought the specter of financial ruin.

She bought her 100-acre Delaplane farm last year, when it was an overgrown slice of land anchored by a rundown old farmhouse just off Interstate 66. She plowed all her savings into it. To pay down her $1 million mortgage and build up her horse business, she planned to sell a five-acre chunk within a couple of years.

Then came what her neighbors have come to regard as “the black cloud.”

“I’m probably sunk by this,” said Eaton, 45, seated by the wood stove she uses to heat the farmhouse. “No one will buy that land if some ugly power line could run right over their house. I’m broken off at the knees.”

Across parts of Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties, property owners who possess some of the most valuable land in Virginia are struggling with the sudden shock of learning that Dominion Virginia Power, which supplies electricity to most of the state, plans to erect 40 miles of power line through their back yards.

Of particular concern is that plans call for the 500,000-volt cables to be carried by a series of steel lattice towers planted along a 150-foot-wide ribbon of land stripped of trees and buildings. The area’s picturesque countryside, with its emerald farms dotted by Civil War-era barns, is arguably its most valuable quality, area real estate agents say.

The mere suggestion that it could be marred by this line has sent land values plummeting, said Matt Sheedy, a land developer and president of Virginians for Sensible Energy Policy, a group opposed to the power line.

“We’ve talked to a number of brokers, and we’re being told that the real estate market is just frozen,” Sheedy said. “People are backing out of contracts, and no one is prepared to buy with this hanging over them.”

Sheedy’s group was formed primarily to raise awareness of the line’s impact on property values and to fight any effort by Dominion to confiscate private property through eminent domain. The group estimates that land directly in the cross hairs could diminish in value by as much as 75 percent.

Dominion officials have not selected a specific route for its portion of the 240-mile electric transmission line, a $1.3 billion project planned jointly by Dominion and Pennsylvania-based Allegheny Power. Last week, the company released a map of several possible routes for its section, all of which roughly track I-66 between Winchester and a substation just across the Prince William border in Loudoun.

Although Dominion can use eminent domain to take private property to build a power line across it, the company usually tries first to negotiate a settlement with a landowner in accordance with state law, said John D. Smatlak, Dominion’s vice president for electric transmission.

Dominion successfully negotiates with property holders about 97 percent of the time, Smatlak said, although critics argue that landowners often simply acquiesce to avoid going to court.

The company does not expect to take anyone’s home for the project, Smatlak said, and in some cases Dominion will offer landowners damages to compensate for other impacts to property values.

But it is rare that landowners are happy with such settlements, said John Foote, a Virginia land-use lawyer.

“It’s an emotional process for most people,” said Foote, “because here you have a [big company] coming in and saying, ‘We are going to take your property, and there is nothing you can do about it.’ ”

It will be especially unwelcome on the western edge of Northern Virginia, where vistas will be diminished by unsightly industrial towers, Sheedy said.

“When you’re out in the country and you’re selling property, what you’re selling is the open space and the bucolic views and the history,” Sheedy said. “Running power lines through an area like this is just devastating.”

Dominion says it has no choice but to put up the lines. Officials say that the company’s power grid is growing dangerously congested and that demand will outstrip capacity by 2011. The only way to avoid the possibility of rolling blackouts is to add more lines and bring more power from the Midwest, they say. And the most efficient route, they say, is through parts of Northern Virginia.

That is little consolation for Gene and Deborah Bedell, who invested in their 223-acre Markham farm as their retirement plan. They pulled their house off the market last week after learning that one of the proposed routes slices through their back yard. No one, their real estate agent told them, would buy it if they knew that it could have a power line looming over it.

“Not along it, not around it, but directly through our property,” said Deborah Bedell, 54. “It’s like finding out your 401(k) is in Enron stock.”

They will have to put off their plans to retire to a warmer climate until the process plays out, which could be years, they said.

Opposition to the project is fierce. The Piedmont Environmental Council, a vociferous opponent of the power line, plans to hold a news conference today during which U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and actor Robert Duvall, who lives in Fauquier, are expected to speak.

Eaton, a horse trainer and riding teacher, says she won’t be able to afford her mortgage payments without selling part of her land, and she believes she will go bankrupt as a result.

The farm had been her dream, Eaton said. She had looked for years for a property where she could care for her clients’ horses, give riding lessons and invite drug-addicted and mentally ill women to enjoy the therapeutic effects of being near horses through a local equine-assisted psychotherapy program.

She could help pay off the debt from the property and invest in her business, she calculated, by selling three subdivided plots for about $300,000 apiece.

Then she learned from a friend that the properties she planned to sell were in one of the proposed paths for the line.

“She said, ‘Cammie, it’s a direct hit,’ ” Eaton said. “I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t even ask questions. I had planned it all so well. My business plan was rock-solid.”

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer


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