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Power struggle 

In Peyton and Falcon, anger over changes to an energy project is blowing in the wind

If you think NIMBY attitudes run deep in suburbs and gated communities, try the countryside.

Many of these folks don't want a damn thing in their backyard. So when a large wind farm was approved by the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners in December 2013 for the Calhan area — after years of delays and switches in ownership — there were quite a few people who didn't like it.

NextEra Energy Resources, the biggest wind-power producer in the country, was approved for a 250-megawatt wind farm to produce electricity for Xcel Energy, a company that serves Denver and much of Colorado. A dozen residents spoke against the project at the county meeting where it was approved, raising concerns about everything from noise, to obstructed views, to impacts on wildlife to road damage.

Other residents were happy about the project — NextEra purchased easements from many of them, and the project is expected to have a positive economic impact on the area, especially during construction, when 200 people will be employed. The county commissioners approved the project 4-1, with Commissioner Amy Lathen, who represents the affected area, voting no.

Fast forward to November 2014: Jay Kennedy, a 15-year Falcon resident who lives on five acres, gets a letter in the mail from NextEra. It describes the scope and location of the project, and comes with a map that he finds difficult to read. He's already doing some research by the time a second notice — which Kennedy also finds confusing — arrives Dec. 23 from the county, stating that the Planning Commission would be considering a proposed change to the project at a Jan. 6 meeting.

Kennedy discovers that NextEra wants to take a portion of its transmission lines, originally planned to run underground mostly along U.S. Highway 24 East, and run them above ground, through the countryside in and around Peyton and Falcon. If approved, he will have transmission lines, propped on poles that would average 87 feet high and could reach up 130 feet, on two sides of his property.

"I swear," he says in an interview with the Indy, "they just think we're just a bunch of backwards-ass people here who don't know our heads from our butts, and they're just going to slide this on by us."

Kennedy's not the only one upset.

Craig Dossey, a project manager for the county, says he sent out 829 postcards to people who own property directly affected by or adjacent to the project. (Of those, about 150 have sold easements on their property.) He says the county went to considerable lengths, hanging posters and printing notices in local newspapers.

But Donna Bryant and her wife Kris Miller, who own two properties near the proposed lines, including one they live on, say they never saw a notice. Bryant says she found out about the project from a neighbor. A disabled vet who uses a wheelchair and has serious medical conditions, Bryant's worried the project will block emergency access to her home because construction vehicles might tear up a private road she recently paid $100,000 to improve. She also has a helicopter landing site on her property, and worries emergency aircraft could become tangled in the lines.

On another note, Bryant's unconvinced the plan is truly beneficial for the community as a whole, financially or otherwise. She notes that once the project is built, it will only employ 10 people.

Nearby, Karen Johnson says she and her husband, Ben, didn't see a notice until Christmas Eve. They eventually figured out that the transmission lines were proposed for the edge of their 35-acre lot, the place where they had recently completed their dream home and barns. The lines would run near the stables where they keep their show horses. She was devastated.

"Horses are nervous animals," she says, "and one person was saying [the lines] pop and crackle, and there's health hazards."

Kennedy, Johnson and Bryant say they're sad to lose their uninterrupted views, and concerned about another issue: their property values. County Assessor Steve Schleiker says he reached out to other Colorado communities with wind farms to see if they had seen negative impacts on property values. Assessors told him that they had not, though none of the lines were near residential properties. Schleiker, who is still researching the issue, says transmission lines in the Springs haven't affected home values. Still, he says he would imagine some buyers on the plains might be turned off by the lines.

Kennedy, Johnson and Bryant were among many local residents who showed up to that Jan. 6 Planning Commission meeting, a marathon session that lasted approximately 12 hours. In the end, the Planning Commission voted 6-3 against the proposal.

But the Planning Commission just makes recommendations to the county commissioners, who will have the final say when they consider the item Feb. 5.

David Gil, project director for NextEra, says he understands the residents' concerns and has done his best to address them.

He says studies conducted on the original configuration for the power lines, which had been devised by a previous developer, have shown that the setup is difficult, if not impossible. The area has wetlands and creeks and tiny rights-of-way in certain spots. And while burying low-voltage lines is often easy, high-voltage lines are more difficult. One of the issues is that if there is a problem, the lines are very hard to reach, meaning energy can be cut off for a long time. It's also far more expensive to bury lines.

Gil says the proposal changes a number of parts of the project, and that many of those changes were intended to appease residents. The proposal, for instance, provides an option to use taller but fewer turbines, and moves some turbines and other infrastructure away from homes. The transmission lines in the reroute would use single poles instead of H-shaped structures, would be made of weathered-looking steel, and would be located as from homes as possible.

But he says he can't avoid homes entirely — the power has to reach a substation in Falcon. "We have to get from Point A to Point B," he says, "and there's not a lot of open areas and options."

He notes that NextEra has hundreds of energy projects across the nation, and has conducted studies that have shown minimal or acceptable impacts on everything from wildlife to noise to health to roads. A doctor spoke at the Planning Commission meeting about health concerns on behalf of NextEra, and Gil says health risks shown in studies in the '80s haven't held up to further scrutiny. However, homeowners say they're worried that data might be slanted in NextEra's favor, since the company is the one presenting it.

Gil also says that while the notices sent out were generalized — they went to everyone impacted by the project, regardless of how they were affected — NextEra's phone number was listed on them. Quite a few people called with questions, and Gil says the company is being responsive. (They did come and speak with Kennedy, for instance.)

Gil says he thinks the project offers more positives than negatives — it's a $400 million investment that will bring in millions in tax dollars and benefit many landowners who have sold easements. But he says if the changes aren't approved, he can't say for sure whether the project will get built.

"I have management approval," he says, "to build the project as I'm proposing it."

  • In Peyton and Falcon, anger over changes to an energy project is blowing in the wind

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