By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)
As Dominion Virginia Power officials consider tearing up local neighborhoods for a 230-kilovolt transmission line, the utility gave back to the community Tuesday, building an outdoor classroom for public school students.
Volunteers with the utility cleared out a weed-filled courtyard at the George Washington Middle School and installed benches, a table, podium and gardens. A $9,550 grant awarded to Alexandria City Public Schools last month includes the materials for the project and a ready-made curriculum for teachers. Another $3,500 is slated for a garden, garden shed and solar panels at Jefferson-Houston School.
Principal Jesse Mazur said the outdoor classroom provides students with new opportunities to learn in a hands-on way.
“Just to get to go outside, that change in environment adds a vitality to learning,” Mazur said. “A dynamic environment with multiple stations will highlight the variety of our curriculum. They can learn about water quality, soil issues … It adds a hands-on element, an authentic quality to standard learning that can’t be created in an artificial environment.”
Marty Obaker, a volunteer with Dominion, called it a pleasure just to be able to provide students with a another avenue for learning.
“It’s an outdoor classroom, it just allows teachers to bring their classes outside the usual classroom,” he said. “Who doesn’t love getting to go outside?”
Greg Tardieu, the public school district’s grants specialist, said members of the George Washington Middle PTA already were looking at grant applications for an outdoor classroom at the school when he happened to meet with Dominion representatives, who mentioned the utility’s program. Without the company’s help, the project would have been far more difficult, he said.
“[Parents] had been looking for a place to do one, but then we’d [have to] get the money and then buy the wood and put it all together and create it,” Tardieu said. “They can do this in a day. Can you imagine what it would have taken for us to do it ourselves? It would have taken forever.
“This is just ‘instant classroom: Just add water.’”
School board member Bill Campbell said that — as he perused the courtyard amid the construction — his engineering mind was already sprouting ideas.
“As an engineer, I was thinking about all the things you could talk about to the students,” Campbell said. “You can see and hear the HVAC system, you can see the air ducts. For sixth, seventh or eighth graders, many have no idea what an engineer does or have no idea what goes into the operational aspects of a school.
“Just being out here could awaken someone’s thought process in that regard.”
The project comes as Dominion has endured harsh scrutiny of its proposal to run a transmission line from its Glebe Road substation to a similar, but yet-to-be-built facility at the site of the dismantled GenOn coal-fired power plant.
The utility has two more outdoor classroom projects at Virginia schools slated for next week. Both schools are located near proposed upgrades to Dominion’s infrastructure.
Piney Branch Elementary School in Prince William County is roughly two miles from the southernmost point of a transmission line project between Haymarket and Gainesville. Dominion plans to file an application to state regulators by the end of this year.
And Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church is less than two miles from a proposed expansion of the utility’s Idylwood substation. That project is up for review before the Fairfax County Planning Commission in February 2015.
Dominion spokesman Chuck Penn bristled at the suggestion that the volunteer projects were at all linked with construction proposals, calling it a “flawed deduction.” He pointed to the $1.3 million in education grants handed out across Virginia this week, spread across numerous K through 12th grade institutions as well as three universities as proof that the utility’s philanthropic motives are altruistic.
“It’s a programmatic initiative, but if you want to stretch it that way, that’s purely your own speculation,” Penn said. “We do thousands of hours of volunteerism all over our service area. … I think it’s insulting to the people who live in that area [to draw that conclusion], as if a volunteer project is going to change any stakeholders’ opinions about a project.”
Meanwhile, city staff and members of a resident-led work group examining Dominion’s transmission line proposal continue to search for ways to exert leverage over the project. Although the power line itself does not fall under the city’s jurisdiction — the application goes straight to the State Corporation Commission — the planned expansion of Pepco’s substation at the GenOn plant site does.
Jeff Farner, deputy director of the city planning department, said upgrades to the substation would be subject to a site plan approval by the city planning commission as well as the board of architectural review, since it lies within the Old Town historic district. But he said opponents of the power line shouldn’t get too hopeful.
“I think the challenge with the site plan process is there’s less discretion compared to something like the development special-use permit,” Farner said, referring to the document developers usually must secure from city council before undertaking a major project. “In the board of architectural review process, they have control over things like the architectural treatment, the facade, fencing and other improvements on the site, but that’s a regulatory approval. City council will get to weigh in on the power line routes [before state regulators], but the site plan itself just goes to the planning commission.”
Farner said he and other staffers are still exploring whether the city has any other regulatory requirements it could wield to exert greater influence over the process, particularly within the city’s zoning ordnances.