The Price of Growth

The Thinker by Rodin

Here in Northern Virginia, residents on its western edge are in a bit of a tizzy. These areas in Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with counties even further to the west hugging the Shenandoah Mountains, are Washington D.C.’s latest and fastest growing bedroom communities. Uppity blue-blooded towns like Middleburg, home to wineries, the well moneyed and fox hunting, who have taken the Virginia piedmont for granted are feeling the press of encroaching civilization. To their south, new bedroom communities like Gainesville are growing by leaps and bounds. For the moment, this land is relatively cheap. This means many of these pastoral areas are now sporting boxy McMansions instead of foxholes. Most of these residents take pride in their new homes and their unspoiled views. You can see the Shenandoah Mountain much more clearly from places like Warrenton and Gainesville than you can from where I live, in Fairfax County.

Along with growth of course come all the trappings of growth: strip malls, congested highways, overcrowded schools and power lines. The strip malls do not seem to bother these latest residents. No doubt, they grumble about the crowded schools. Those who commute regularly from these far-flung exurbs to Washington D.C. have to groan through nightmarish commutes that get them up long before dawn and deposit them home long after the dinner hour. However, it seems to be a price they are willing to pay for a relatively affordable home in the exurbs, the white picket fence and to not hear neighbors playing rock music at 2 a.m. In time, they expect their houses will become excellent investments, as my closer in house has become for me in the 13 years we have lived in closer-in Fairfax County. Nevertheless, there appears to be one adjustment they cannot tolerate: new fifteen story power lines courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power and Pennsylvania based Alleghany Power.

The Virginia Piedmont is without question gorgeous real estate. At least for now it consists of many miles of generally rolling hills, mostly deforested, which make a gradual incline as they approach the Shenandoah Mountains to the west. Perhaps it is the relative lack of trees in this part of Virginia that has these new residents so up in alarm. Without them, it is hard to obscure the ugliness of these new power lines set to run through their neighborhoods. Some are watching their hopes for a tidy fortune disappear with the power lines.

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.”

I am having a hard time summoning much sympathy for these property owners. That is not to say that I too would not be aghast if Virginia Power decided to put up fifteen story power lines in my neighborhood. However, that was never a problem. My community was settled before I bought my house. In fact, there are high voltage power lines about half a mile from my house. There is many a nice house as well as a McMansion close to these power lines too. I have not taken the time to assess their value compared to homes like mine that are further away, but I doubt those high tension power lines have affected their property values too much. At least here in Fairfax County, it is location, location, location. If you live in Fairfax County, you are within twenty miles of an incredible number of diverse and well paying jobs. Residents seem to agree: being closer to good schools and good jobs is worth the price of having a high power line as a next-door neighbor.

On the other hand, what are the people in these latest exurbs thinking? Did they think growth would not involve some messy choices? Virginia and Alleghany Power understand what is going on: these areas are growing like gangbusters. Eventually they will not be able to meet demand for electricity unless they build the infrastructure now to support these communities. Hence the need for fifteen story power lines. The only question is where to place them. For the most part, they are hoping to place them not too far from I-66, which is the major interstate heading west from Washington D.C. This seems reasonable to me. I-66 is a bit of an eyesore as an interstate anyhow. It would be hard to make things much worse by putting a power line next to it, unless, of course, you have property close to these power lines.

Most homeowners in these areas will make out very well. I expect their home values will rise steadily. The land may no longer be so pristine. They may be spending their days in new traffic jams far from the city. Nevertheless, more swatches of Virginia piedmont seemed doomed to succumb to humanity’s need for large living spaces.

While people have to live somewhere, in my mind the obscenity are not plans to put in these admittedly ugly power lines. The real obscenity is the way these pristine lands are being transformed into new oversized habitats for humanity. These newly traffic-clogged roads once ferried the likes of statesmen like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of building in closer to cities like Washington, which already have large tracks of land that could be redeveloped, we have to push out further, destroying our environment, further reducing space needed for wild animals and exacerbating global warming in the process.

I understand why these people choose to live where they live. If I were a twenty something again it would probably seem like a logical choice to me. I probably could not afford to live closer in. However, I do not think I would be so naïve as to think my choice would not be without some necessary tradeoffs. Fifteen story power lines are part of the price of growth. These NIMBYies may be upset now, particularly if their property values are affected. Nevertheless, you can bet they would be much more upset if ten years from now their house suffered regular brownouts because the supply of power could not keep up with the demand.

They should swallow their misgiving and applaud Virginia and Alleghany Power for being proactive. If they do not like it, it is not too late to sell their estates in the exurbs, and move in to some smaller and more modest estate closer in. I suspect Mother Nature would prefer it if they made that kind of choice.

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