Virginia’s high court delays ruling on Dominion’s new electrical towers

By Peter Dujardin, Daily Press – 2/26/2015

The Virginia Supreme Court was widely expected to hand down a ruling Thursday in a dispute over Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to build a new power line over the James River.

But the decision didn’t come.

It wasn’t the snowfall. Though the Richmond area got eight inches of snow, the Virginia Supreme Court still managed to release rulings in 12 other cases, most of them heard around the same time as the power line case.

Steven Emmert, a Virginia Beach appellate lawyer and expert on the state’s high court, said there are many reasons why cases can be “held back,” but that it’s difficult to read the tea leaves.

“You can’t read anything into the fact that it didn’t come out,” Emmert said. “It doesn’t indicate anything as to the likely outcome of the case.”

Dominion, Virginia’s largest electricity provider, wants to build a new high-voltage transmission line across the James River — from Surry to James City County and beyond — to provide the Peninsula with an additional energy source.

Saying it picked the “least impactful” route it could, Dominion says the new line is sorely needed to make up for forthcoming shutdowns of Yorktown’s coal-fired plants because of stringent new federal environmental regulations.

But James City County and historic preservationists are fighting the proposal, contending it will destroy the pristine vistas Capt. John Smith and the first English settlers saw when they sailed the James in early 1607.

They assert that the towers — some nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty — will also mar the view from the Colonial Parkway, the tip of Jamestown Island and Carter’s Grove Plantation.

At a hearing at the Virginia Supreme Court in early January, James City and the preservationists urged the court to reverse the State Corporation Commission’s September 2013 approval of the project.

The court’s normal turnaround time on deciding cases would have led to a ruling Thursday. But the fact that a ruling gets delayed — which happens in about 5 percent of cases — doesn’t indicate anything in particular, Emmert said.

“The first thing people might ask is, ‘Does that mean that they are likely to reverse (the SCC’s approval)?,'” he said. “It doesn’t indicate that one way or the other.”

“It may mean that there’s a dissent, and that the (dissenting justice) is taking his or her time in circulating their opinion,” Emmert said. Or, he said, “there could be a discussion over the wording of what the ruling is going to be.”

Sometimes, he said, justices take more time in high-profile cases. Other times, he said, rulings are delayed over “an otherwise mundane issue” the justices want to delve into further.

“It’s clear that they consider this an important case,” Emmert said. “It’s an important case because of the nature of the lines (crossing the river) at one of the most historic places in the whole commonwealth.”

The case “matters a great deal,” Emmert said, both to preservationists as well as to Dominion and its electricity customers on the Peninsula.

The state Supreme Court could also set a precedent when it decides whether to accept Dominion’s and the SCC’s contention that a proposed new substation in James City is “an integral part” of the proposed power line.

If the high court agrees with them, that could strip the rights of cities and counties around Virginia to decide whether or not to approve such substations in their own communities.

Emmert said the Supreme Court’s ruling would likely come down in mid-April. Dominion also needs federal approval — from the Army Corps of Engineers — before it can begin building the towers.

Dujardin can be reached at 757-247-4749