ASPEN - Call it a major score for the group opposed to the city's Castle Creek hydroelectric project.
On Tuesday, Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch certified the petition that aims to overturn a recent City Council decision to rezone land off Power Plant Road south of Aspen for the hydropower facility.
Needing at least 594 valid signatures from Aspen voters - the figure represents 10 percent of the city's electorate - anti-project forces had gathered 953 signatures when they turned them in to Koch's office on Jan. 17. Koch's letter to petition co-organizer Maurice Emmer, a "statement of sufficiency," does not say how many of the signatures were valid but notes that the minimum requirement was met.
"After examining the referendum petitions submitted by you and (co-organizer) Ward Hauenstein ... I hereby certify that your petition contains more than the 594 signatures of city electors required by the City of Aspen Charter Section 5.3(a)," Koch's letter says.
However, Koch wrote that she cannot make an official "final determination of petition sufficiency" until the end of a protest period. Anyone who wishes to challenge the validity of the petition drive has until Feb. 27 to file a protest with her office.
Barring the success of a potential protest, the council will take up the matter during its regular meeting on March 12. Council members will have the option of rescinding the ordinance outright - they would need four votes of the five-member entity - or calling a special election this spring to let the city's voters decide whether to rezone the land for the hydro plant.
Rescinding the zoning ordinance would not prevent the city from moving forward with its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a license to operate a small water plant. When the council made the zoning change on Dec. 12, the action was deemed as something that would be a helpful addition to its request to the commission, but not immediately crucial.
But project opponents want the zoning matter to be decided by a local referendum, and sooner rather than later. They believe the public should be allowed to decide the worthiness of the project, and they discount a 2007 referendum in which more than 70 percent of those who voted supported a $5.5 million bond issue to finance the hydro plant's construction, saying the ballot question was vague and voters failed to understand what they were approving.
"By having an election you open up a public dialogue to air the issues and concerns the electorate has about the project," Hauenstein said Tuesday. "There was the (2007) election on a bond issue but it wasn't vetted; we didn't vote on the project as it has evolved to this point."
Hauenstein and other opponents have said that a chief concern is the escalating cost of the project. Originally tagged at around $6.2 million, the city's latest estimate puts the overall project cost at $10.5 million, a number many critics contend is still too low. The city has estimated that completing the project would require slightly more than $3 million.
Some residents and officials affiliated with environmental organizations have opposed the project on different grounds, saying that the proposed plant's use of water from Castle and Maroon creeks to generate electricity would harm the ecosystem that thrives on water flow.
"I'd like to see the election held in the spring," Hauenstein said. A special election would have to be scheduled during a period of between 30 and 90 days following the March 12 meeting.
Some council members have said they oppose an election or that they would prefer to hold the election in November, at the same time as Pitkin County and national elections, to avoid the cost of a special election. Koch said a special election would cost the city about $16,000, which doesn't include staff time.
"My preference would be a November vote rather than a special election; it's less expensive," said Councilman Steve Skadron, adding that municipal law prevents council members from considering the option of a Nov. 6 election.
Skadron said that in the hydro plant debate, the city faces well-funded opponents and would face an uphill battle in trying to educate the community about the merits of the facility prior to a spring referendum.
"My concern is that (with a spring election), only one side of the argument gets presented," he added.