ASPEN - The organizers of a petition effort that seeks to give Aspen voters an opportunity to weigh in on the Castle Creek hydroelectricity-plant project say they believe they have the necessary number of signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
The "magic number," according to organizer Ward Hauenstein, is 594 valid signatures, representing 10 percent of the city's electorate. He said Monday that he believes the number has been reached but that a counting session was planned for later in the evening.
Even if the threshold hasn't been attained, organizers still have another week to attempt to gather more signatures.
A member of the city's Election Commission, Hauenstein said he's not opposed to the city delving into a new hydro project, but he believes it has to be done with public support and realistic financial projections.
"I think hydro energy is good. I'm just not sure this community should be doing this particular project and certainly not with the process that they've used so far," Hauenstein said. "I think they can do it with a better development model that protects the city's financial interests."
A top concern, Hauenstein said, is the escalating cost of the project. Originally tagged at around $6.2 million, the city's latest estimate puts the project at $10.5 million, a number many critics contend is still too low.
If deemed valid, the petition would allow voters to decide the question of rezoning a small piece of property on Power Plant Road for the hydro plant's operations facility, or what the city would call the Castle Creek Energy Center.
In December, the Aspen City Council voted 5-0 to rezone the property as another step toward moving the project forward - and to show the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, whose approval of a permit request is necessary, that its goals are serious.
The rezoning wouldn't go into effect unless FERC approves the city's application for a permit to operate a "small water project." The city wants to build a 1,761-square-foot building on the site that would house its automated operations center.
The council's decision came amid numerous public queries about the project's escalating costs, a lawsuit filed by local landowners that questions the city's water rights and concerns about environmental impacts to Maroon and Castle creeks. Opponents also contend that local voters didn't know what they were approving when in 2007 they supported a $5.5 million bond request to finance construction of the plant.
If the petition is successful - the deadline to turn over the signatures to City Clerk Kathryn Koch for verification is Jan. 17 - the council would have two options. The first, desired by Hauenstein, would be to schedule a special election on the zoning matter, which in effect would be a referendum on whether the public supports the city's hydro plant plans.
The second option would be a to rescind the ordinance rezoning the property for the plant.
"The sooner we get the public discussion that we didn't have in 2007, the more light there is on the project, the more that the numbers are out on the table for everyone to agree with ... and the better the project," Hauenstein said.
Hauenstein said about 40 unpaid volunteers have been gathering signatures. Though as an election commissioner he has championed government transparency on many occasions in the recent past, he declined to name them, saying that they have requested anonymity.
However, Hauenstein did say that some of the volunteers are residents of the Castle and Maroon creek watershed who are vehemently opposed to the project and are involved in a lawsuit against the city.
Mayor Mick Ireland, an ardent supporter of Castle Creek hydro plans, had no direct comment on the petition effort.
However, he said that if it's successful, he doesn't believe the city should be made to bear the cost of holding a special election on the rezoning question. It's an off-year for municipal political races and the next scheduled city election is planned for November to accommodate U.S. presidential and Congressional contests.
"If we're gonna vote on this, I think we should vote on this in November," Ireland said. "We should let everybody have their say, give everybody time to develop their arguments and not force the community to pay thousands of dollars to hold some special election to satisfy some agenda."
Officials, including Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick and Finance Director Don Taylor, recently met with staff of The Aspen Times to dispute the accuracy of critics' projections of how much the plant will cost the city in the long run. Critics, including Hauenstein and new Aspen resident Maurice Emmer, also met with newspaper staff to question the city's estimates.