Dominion requests 3-month deferral in Varina substation case

A Dominion Virginia Power rendering shows what the view of power lines might look like from Osborne Turnpike if a substation were built 725 feet back from the road.
UPDATE: MAY 23, 1:50 P.M. – Plans for a Dominion Virginia Power substation in Varina could be delayed for three more months, after company officials today requested a deferral of their scheduled June 9 case before the Henrico Planning Commission.

The company is seeking to build a substation in Varina to improve service reliability in the region and wants to locate it on a 1.5-acre portion of a 10-acre site at 7000 Osborne Turnpike.

Company officials now are asking that the case be delayed until September so that they may consider input they received during a public meeting May 17 at Varina High School. Specifically, they intend to consider the possibility of purchasing a portion of an adjacent 477-acre parcel on Osborne Turnpike, which was listed for sale recently. Several speakers at last week's meeting urged Dominion representatives to consider that option.

Officials also will consider the possibility of using the currently proposed site, but moving the facility even farther back from the road than 725 feet away, which is the distance specified in their current proposal. In addition, they want to study the possibility of enacting conservation easements around the facility as a way to protect against any future development. Several local preservation groups have urged that the company take that step as a show of good faith.

In a May 20 letter to Henrico Planning Director Joe Emerson, attorney M. Ann Neil Cosby (who represents Dominion) wrote that the deferral also would allow company officials time "to post additional information to [the Dominion] website and respond to residents and other interested individuals regarding the need for the substation and the site selection process."

The Planning Commission will decide whether the plans for the substation are "substantially in accord" with the county's Comprehensive Plan, which designates the Osborne Turnpike corridor as an "Existing Character Protection Area." The commission's vote will be sent as a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which has final authority and likely would vote on the issue one month later.

The county’s Board of Zoning Appeals also must approve a conditional use permit to allow the substation’s construction.

(This has been a breaking news update. Below is the original article that appeared in the May 19 Henrico Citizen.)

* * *

MAY 19 – Plans for a Dominion Virginia Power electric substation at 7000 Osborne Turnpike in Varina were met with mixed opinions during a public meeting May 17 at Varina High School – just as they have been since the proposal first was announced last year.

In response to earlier concerns from citizens about how visible the facility might be from Osborne Turnpike, Dominion officials told the 85 or so attendees that they had developed plans that could push it 725 feet back from the road, mostly hidden behind a natural berm and other vegetation. Another option, equally amenable to Dominion, would locate it closer to the road – about 325 feet away, allowing it to be even more obscured behind vegetation.

In either scenario, officials said, the distribution lines running out of the substation to provide power to homes and businesses would be located underground for a distance of about 1,200 feet for two of the three planned circuits.

The substation, proposed within a 1.5-acre fenced area on a 10-acre parcel at the site, is needed to improve service reliability in the Varina area, according to Dominion officials.

Within the area that would be served by the new substation, there have been 13 power outages during the past two years – including six that lasted one hour or longer, Dominion records show. Those figures exceed typical outages experienced by most Dominion customers elsewhere, according to the company.

But some residents are concerned that the placement of the substation within a corridor known for its sweeping views of farmland, woods and the James River could present an unwelcome industrial appearance – and might even prompt other commercial or industrial development.

Other sites considered, ruled out
Following a community meeting last summer, during which opponents expressed those views, Dominion officials searched for another site within the region that might be a better fit. They strongly considered three other sites along the path of the high-voltage transmission lines that would feed into the substation: at the corner of Rockingham Street and Route 5; across from John Rolfe Middle School; and at the end of Rockingham Street.

But at those sites, the substation would have been too visible, too far from the area of need, or abutting Civil War trenches, Dominion spokeswoman Tiffany Taylor-Minor said, so the Osborne Turnpike site – which is traversed by the transmission lines – remained the most viable option.

Other options, such as a site on Darbytown Road near the Darbytown Meadows neighborhood, would have required 2.5 miles of new double distribution lines to be erected within 50-75 feet of existing homes.

Several residents asked why Dominion hadn’t considered purchasing some or all of a 477-acre tract of land that is listed for sale adjacent to the 10-acre site. Company officials said that the property owner told them it wasn’t for sale when they checked several months ago, but they vowed to revisit the issue.

The new substation would feature three circuits and serve about 5,600 customers in the southern and western portions of Varina – an area roughly south of Darbytown Road and west of Strath Road – and about 1,900 customers in portions of Richmond, near Rocketts Landing and Fulton Hill, Dominion project manager Don Doody said.

That same area of Varina, along with another section south of Darbytown Road and east of Strath Road to the county’s border with New Kent, currently are served by four circuits of a substation located on Turner Road in Varina. The Turner substation is functioning near its capacity and is located 8 miles or more from some of the customers it serves – much farther than Dominion would prefer.

Concerns about future development
Members of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition have watched the proposal with wary eyes, fearful that it could threaten the bucolic views of the region and the organization’s efforts to market the region as a historic tourist destination.

“I am fearful that what you are proposing is going to put that at risk,” coalition co-chair Nicole Anderson Ellis told Dominion officials at Tuesday’s meeting.

Anderson Ellis and others asked Dominion officials to purchase adjacent land and place conservation easements on it, to ensure that it would never be developed and to ease concerns that this facility could spawn subsequent commercial or industrial development.

During the meeting, Board of Supervisors chairman and Varina District representative Tyrone Nelson bristled at the notion that approval of the substation could lead to such development along the corridor.

“First of all, we didn’t say we were voting for this,” said Nelson, whose own home sits roughly across the street from the proposed site. “Second of all, unless I die or someone takes my spot, [industrial development] is not going to happen. For it to be industrial, we would have to rezone the property.”

In addition to better serving existing customers, the new substation would help Dominion prepare for future development that is planned in Varina – including Tree Hill and Wilton on the James, which will total nearly 6,000 residential units and other commercial and retail uses.

During full operation, the substation would be no louder than a residential heat pump, Doody told the audience Tuesday.

Dominion must win approval from the county’s Board of Supervisors in order to build the facility on the site. The case first will be heard by the county’s Planning Commission June 9, before supervisors consider whether it is substantially in accord with the county’s 2026 Comprehensive Plan (likely July 12). The county’s Board of Zoning Appeals also must approve a conditional use permit to allow the substation’s construction.

Construction of the facility would take about six months, Doody said. Dominion hopes the facility will be functional by 2020.
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