Virginia Supreme Court Opinions Affecting Local Government Law – April 16, 2015

The Virginia Supreme Court issued opinions this morning during its April term.  This term resulted in several opinions affecting Virginia local government law.  Opinions addressed evidence in a condemnation case, interpreted the Freedom of Information Act after release of a document by a Sheriff, and included the long-awaited opinion in the appeal from the State Corporation Commission in a major electric power siting case which involved potential preemption of local zoning and questions of historic and scenic impacts.   As always, congratulations to the winners!

This firm was pleased to represent James City County, the James River Association and the Save the James Alliance Trust in the James City County v. Dominion Virginia Power case (consolidated appeal with BASF v. SCC), in which local government zoning authority over electric utility facilities other than transmission lines was affirmed, but so was the granting of the certificate by the Commission.

The case summaries are taken from the Virginia Supreme Court opinions website. Click on the case number to read the opinion.

140462 BASF Corp. v. SCC 04/16/2015 In consolidated appeals of right by a Virginia county, environmental groups and a corporation owning affected land, challenging orders of the State Corporation Commission issuing certificates of public convenience and necessity to an electric utility for construction of electric transmission facilities, including a new overhead transmission line that will cross the James River, and a new associated switching station that will be located in the county, no error is found in the Commission’s interpretations of Code § 56-46.1(A) and (B). Considering the record, it cannot be said that the Commission erred in concluding that the proposed route across the James River reasonably minimizes the adverse impacts of the transmission line on the scenic assets, historic districts and environment of the affected area. However, under the plain language of Code § 56-46.1(F), a switching station is not a “transmission line.” This provision does not reflect a manifest intent on the part of the General Assembly to exempt switching stations from local zoning ordinances, and the Commission erred in ruling otherwise. The objecting corporation’s appeal is affirmed, while the county and environmental group appellant’s appeals are affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the case is remanded. Combined case with Record Nos. 141009, 141201, 140470, and 141010

140470 James City County v. SCC 04/16/2015 In consolidated appeals of right by a Virginia county, environmental groups and a corporation owning affected land, challenging orders of the State Corporation Commission issuing certificates of public convenience and necessity to an electric utility for construction of electric transmission facilities, including a new overhead transmission line that will cross the James River, and a new associated switching station that will be located in the county, no error is found in the Commission’s interpretations of Code § 56-46.1(A) and (B). Considering the record, it cannot be said that the Commission erred in concluding that the proposed route across the James River reasonably minimizes the adverse impacts of the transmission line on the scenic assets, historic districts and environment of the affected area. However, under the plain language of Code § 56-46.1(F), a switching station is not a “transmission line.” This provision does not reflect a manifest intent on the part of the General Assembly to exempt switching stations from local zoning ordinances, and the Commission erred in ruling otherwise. The objecting corporation’s appeal is affirmed, while the county and environmental group appellant’s appeals are affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the case is remanded. Combined case with Record Nos. 140462, 141009, 141201, and 141010

140929 Ramsey v. Commissioner of Highways 04/16/2015 In a condemnation proceeding, the circuit court erred in precluding testimony by a landowner about a valuation of the property initially reported to the owners that was almost twice the amount a successor appraiser for the Government testified to at trial. The trial court erred in finding that the Commissioner’s initial statement valuing the property was inadmissible as an offer to settle. At the time such statements are provided, there is no disputed claim, and hence no settlement negotiations of a disputed claim. If statements of just compensation are provided a prospective condemnee, they are admissible at a subsequent compensation trial as an admission, once it becomes known that at trial the Government is valuing the property at a lower figure. The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings.

141009 BASF Corp. v. SCC 04/16/2015 In consolidated appeals of right by a Virginia county, environmental groups and a corporation owning affected land, challenging orders of the State Corporation Commission issuing certificates of public convenience and necessity to an electric utility for construction of electric transmission facilities, including a new overhead transmission line that will cross the James River, and a new associated switching station that will be located in the county, no error is found in the Commission’s interpretations of Code § 56-46.1(A) and (B). Considering the record, it cannot be said that the Commission erred in concluding that the proposed route across the James River reasonably minimizes the adverse impacts of the transmission line on the scenic assets, historic districts and environment of the affected area. However, under the plain language of Code § 56-46.1(F), a switching station is not a “transmission line.” This provision does not reflect a manifest intent on the part of the General Assembly to exempt switching stations from local zoning ordinances, and the Commission erred in ruling otherwise. The objecting corporation’s appeal is affirmed, while the county and environmental group appellant’s appeals are affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the case is remanded. Combined case with Record Nos. 140462, 141201, 140470, and 141010

141010 James City County v. SCC 04/16/2015 In consolidated appeals of right by a Virginia county, environmental groups and a corporation owning affected land, challenging orders of the State Corporation Commission issuing certificates of public convenience and necessity to an electric utility for construction of electric transmission facilities, including a new overhead transmission line that will cross the James River, and a new associated switching station that will be located in the county, no error is found in the Commission’s interpretations of Code § 56-46.1(A) and (B). Considering the record, it cannot be said that the Commission erred in concluding that the proposed route across the James River reasonably minimizes the adverse impacts of the transmission line on the scenic assets, historic districts and environment of the affected area. However, under the plain language of Code § 56-46.1(F), a switching station is not a “transmission line.” This provision does not reflect a manifest intent on the part of the General Assembly to exempt switching stations from local zoning ordinances, and the Commission erred in ruling otherwise. The objecting corporation’s appeal is affirmed, while the county and environmental group appellant’s appeals are affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the case is remanded. Combined case with Record Nos. 140462, 141009, 141201, and 140470

141201 BASF Corp. v. SCC 04/16/2015 In consolidated appeals of right by a Virginia county, environmental groups and a corporation owning affected land, challenging orders of the State Corporation Commission issuing certificates of public convenience and necessity to an electric utility for construction of electric transmission facilities, including a new overhead transmission line that will cross the James River, and a new associated switching station that will be located in the county, no error is found in the Commission’s interpretations of Code § 56-46.1(A) and (B). Considering the record, it cannot be said that the Commission erred in concluding that the proposed route across the James River reasonably minimizes the adverse impacts of the transmission line on the scenic assets, historic districts and environment of the affected area. However, under the plain language of Code § 56-46.1(F), a switching station is not a “transmission line.” This provision does not reflect a manifest intent on the part of the General Assembly to exempt switching stations from local zoning ordinances, and the Commission erred in ruling otherwise. The objecting corporation’s appeal is affirmed, while the county and environmental group appellant’s appeals are affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the case is remanded. Combined case with Record Nos. 140462, 141009, 140470, and 141010

141238 Fitzgerald v. Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office 04/16/2015 In a proceeding under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, to obtain a copy of a suicide note contained in a criminal investigative file opened by a sheriff’s office under its lawful authority to investigate the unexpected and unattended death of a senior United States Air Force official, the sheriff had the discretion, but not the duty, to disclose documents within this file and eventual closure of the file did not change its character. Nor did the suicide note, standing alone, constitute a compilation subject to disclosure under Code § 15.2-1722(B). The judgment of the circuit court denying a writ of mandamus to compel disclosure of this document is affirmed.