Pimmit Hills homeowners call for more oversight of Washington Gas pipeline project

An orange line shows the proposed route of the new Washington Gas line (via Google Maps)

Opposition to a natural gas pipeline planned for Pimmit Hills resurfaced yesterday (Wednesday), as residents voiced concerns about safety and other issues at a Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals public hearing.

Washington Gas has sought to upgrade its infrastructure in the area since 2012, but citizen appeals have stalled the project, which will turn a 3-mile line along Route 7 into a 5-mile route circling around Tysons.

In video testimonies submitted to the zoning appeals board, Pimmit Hills residents expressed fears of gas ruptures and a potential explosion affecting homes where the new pipeline could be built.

The appeals board postponed a decision on the matter to Feb. 2 due to a lack of time. Video testimony is scheduled to be heard at that time along with additional questioning, staff comments and rebuttals.

Dubbed the Tysons Strip One Project, the proposed pipeline would replace a nearly 70-year-old, 14-inch-wide line with a new, higher pressure one that’s 2 feet in width.

While it will distribute gas to homes, the new pipeline won’t directly hook up to residences, according to a lawyer representing Washington Gas.

The case before the appeals board was initiated by four homeowners who objected to the county’s finding from July 23, 2021 that the project doesn’t need special exception approval. A staff report agreed with zoning administrator Leslie Johnson, saying the residents’ appeal lacked merit.

Residents Christina Chen Zinner, Kurt Iselt, Sarah Ellis, and Lillian Whitesell argue that there should be more oversight of the utility work.

“The [Fairfax County Board of Supervisors] is not even being allowed…to exercise its discretion and protect its…constituents,” Evan Johns, an attorney for the group, said.

Light or Heavy Utility Facility?

The case before the zoning appeals board hinges on a disagreement over whether the pipeline should be considered a light or heavy utility facility.

The residents’ attorneys argue that it’s a heavy utility facility, which isn’t permitted by Pimmit Hills’ residential district.

County staff see the pipeline as a light utility facility, which is exempt from zoning regulations when in a Virginia Department of Transportation right-of-way and intended for consumer distribution.

“A heavy utility use is a major component of an infrastructure system,” Johnson said. “I think it’s clear that it’s not a heavy utility facility.”

Johnson admitted during the public hearing that Fairfax County’s zoning ordinance, which was updated in March 2021, doesn’t clearly spell out how to characterize a gas line, saying her determination was based on the definition of a light utility facility:

A structure or facility generally related to the distribution or collection of utility products or services, rather than the production of those products or services, that needs to be in or near the neighborhood or near utility consumers.

For examples of heavy duty facilities, the ordinance cites wastewater treatment plants, gas compressor stations, and electricity generating facilities.

In their report, county staff say the residents appealing the ruling “are not aggrieved by the Zoning Administrator’s decision and thus lack standing,” stating that they “have not articulated a particularized harm.”

Residents have suggested otherwise. During the public hearing, one referenced a fire that erupted during repair work on a gas line in Springfield in February, damaging vehicles and a home and injuring three Washington Gas workers.

“We would be one of the only residential neighborhoods in the county with a transmission type line like this going through it,” Chen Zinner said.

Alternatives Considered

Lawyers for the four residents noted that the route through Pimmit Hills wasn’t the only one that Washington Gas considered.

A campaign to maintain the existing pipeline’s path along Route 7 and Margarity Road even garnered support from elected officials, including Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust, State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd), and Del. Marcus Simon (D-53rd).

“The community, our offices, and VDOT have asked Washington Gas to instead install the transmission pipeline coincident with the on-going efforts to widen Route 7 from the Beltway to I66,” the legislators wrote in a 2019 letter. “Completion of the County’s Route 7 project is expected to take several years and be finished by 2030.”

In 2015, Pimmit Hills residents Glenn Heller and Sheila Frace petitioned the State Corporation Commission for a public hearing, but a hearing examiner denied the request, saying it isn’t required for utility facility projects involving an ordinary extension or improvement.

Washington Gas told the SCC that not having a high-pressure pipeline in Pimmit Hills could cause “systematic failures,” because it would not be able to deliver gas to parts of Virginia, Maryland, and D.C.

Photo via Google Maps

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