A state historic preservation organization is sounding the alarm over the potential threat posed by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other proposed utility projects to a trio of sensitive assets in their paths — an early 19th-century archaeological site at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Nelson County, a community rooted in post-Civil War emancipation in Buckingham County, and a scenic crossing of the Rappahannock River near the Chesapeake Bay.
Preservation Virginia, in a pair of news conferences scheduled today in Nelson and Buckingham, released a list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Scenic Places that includes the three sites as one entry under a new category of “cultural resources threatened by utility infrastructure projects.”
“The potential cumulative negative effects on Virginia’s heritage tourism industry are substantial and unprecedented,” the Richmond-based group said in an announcement of the list.
The list also includes five other potentially threatened sites, among them the General Assembly Building scheduled for replacement on Capitol Square in Richmond and a vacant parcel, the Westwood Tract, proposed for development at Union Presbyterian Seminary in North Side.
The designation of the new category for utility projects reflects mounting concern among historic preservationists about the potential damage of large-scale electric and natural gas transmission projects to scenic, historic and cultural resources — a battle already pitched over an electric transmission line proposed across the James River near the Jamestown Settlement and still pending federal environmental review.
“We’re trying to look in an over-arching way at the collective threat to these resources on the ground, below the ground, and in terms of viewshed,” said Justin Sarafin, director of preservation initiatives and engagement.
At the center of their concern is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5 billion project proposed by a Dominion-led company to cross 600 miles in three states to supply electric power plants and gas distributors in Virginia and North Carolina. The project is one of several natural gas pipelines proposed to carry low-cost gas from the Marcellus shale fields in West Virginia to markets along the East Coast.
Dominion, one of four partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, says it is committed to a route that does the least damage to the environment, historic resources, and local communities the company’s electric utility has served for 100 years.
“We have a deeply personal stake in preserving Virginia’s historic and cultural treasures,” said spokesman Aaron F. Ruby. “Energy infrastructure needs to be developed in a way that preserves our rich heritage for the benefit of future generations.
“That is why we go to tremendous lengths when planning infrastructure projects to identify and avoid impacts to historic and cultural sites,” Ruby said. “Our commitment to historic preservation is reflected not only in words, but our actions.
“It’s reflected in the numerous adjustments we’ve made to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other infrastructure projects to avoid or minimize impacts to historic sites. It’s also reflected in the collaborative relationships we’ve built with state historic preservation offices, local preservation groups and many individual landowners.”
However, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other lengthy utility projects pose a “huge challenge” to state officials charged with helping federal regulators assess the potential harm to historic and cultural resources, said Julie V. Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“In a state like Virginia, it can be difficult to avoid them,” said Langan, whose department is involved in reviewing the still-evolving pipeline project under the National Historic Preservation Act. “It’s like threading a needle.”
Preservationists say the proposed route would make a “direct hit” on a series of historic sites within the pending South Rockfish Valley Rural Historic District near Nellysford. The proposed pipeline would cross the Blue Ridge at the entrance to Wintergreen Resort and sweep down the ridge line to state Route 151 at Spruce Creek at the site of the old Wintergreen Village and Coleman Mills, a pair of early 19th-century grist mills being excavated by the Rockfish Valley Foundation.
“If culture and history are all important, this is the mother lode of the entire pipeline,” said Peter A. Agelasto III, president of the foundation, which first proposed to create the historic district in 2009.
Dominion said it has sought permission to conduct an archaeological survey on the property but hasn’t received it, which has been a common clash along the route in Nelson and other counties where landowners object to a state law that allows surveyors onto their properties without permission. An effort to enforce the law against Agelasto and other landowners is pending in Nelson County Circuit Court.
In Buckingham, preservationists are concerned about the health and other effects of a proposed natural gas compressor station for the pipeline in the heart of a mostly African-American community that was founded by slaves freed after the Civil War.
“Those families are still there,” said Lakshmi Fjord, a scholar in residence at the University of Virginia Department of Anthropology and a member of Friends of Buckingham.
The 65-acre site for the compressor station lies north of state Route 56, near a pair of African-American churches, Union Hill and Union Grove, and across the highway from Wood’s Corner. In addition to the proposed station, Fjord is concerned about the potential threat to cemeteries and slave burial grounds, which often are not marked.
“Everything about slave history is harder to see,” she said.
Separately, Preservation Virginia listed African-American cemeteries across the state as endangered and cited the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in downtown Charlottesville as an example for restoring and preserving them.
The third site listed as endangered by utility projects is the scenic crossing of the Rappahannock River between Topping and Whitestone. Preservationists oppose a 2-mile electric transmission line proposed by Dominion Virginia Power on a series of 10 towers east of the Robert O. Norris Bridge. The utility said earlier this year that it intends to ask the State Corporation Commission for permission to build the line, although the company has studied a number of alternatives.
Preservation Virginia says its strategy for addressing these potential threats includes supporting a bill carried over by the General Assembly this year that would have required new transmission lines to avoid sites listed or determined eligible for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register. The group also said it would begin a study this summer of “heritage tourism” and its importance to the Virginia economy.
“We’ll be more publicly engaged moving forward,” Sarafin said. “It remains to be seen what kind of public policy could come out of it.”
The other sites on the list of “Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places” include:
- General Assembly Building complex, Capitol Square, Richmond.
- Westwood Tract, Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond.
- Howland Chapel School and Teachers’ Cottage, Heathsville.
- Oak Hill Slave Dwelling, near Danville.
- African-American cemeteries, statewide.