ASPEN - By a mere 110 votes, Aspen voters rejected an advisory question designed to move the city's controversial Castle Creek hydroelectric power project forward.
Complete but unofficial returns Tuesday night put the tally at 2,044, or 51.38 percent, against the project, while 1,934, or 48.62 percent, supported the city's intention to finish it. While the city is not legally bound to adhere to the result, observers say that to ignore the will of the voters on the issue would be a gigantic political misstep.
Adam Frisch, who was elected to the City Council in mid-2011 just as project opponents were intensifying their efforts to fight the initiative, said city officials and others who openly supported hydropower failed to rally swing voters over to their side.
Frisch supported the hydro project when it first passed local voter muster in 2007 as $5.5 million bond issue. This time around, he voted against it, saying he wasn't happy with cost overruns that raised the project's pricetag to $10.5 million.
He said that although overruns sometimes occur with capital projects, he never got a reasonable explanation for the higher costs and that no one in City Hall was ever held accountable for the error.
He suggested that swing voters might have come to believe that during the public process over the Castle Creek hydroelectric project, the city wasn't adhering to the same standards that it employs when scrutinizing private development applications. From the start, the city should have pursued an application with federal regulators that required a full environmental review, he said, instead of seeking exemptions from stringent reviews and then changing its mind in the face of mounting opposition.
"I think the city opened itself up to a lot of flak over something we should have been able to control better," he said.
Frisch said although the question was advisory - a binding referendum on the project was not a possibility because a city council cannot tie the hands of future councils - he doubts there will be a move among officials to keep going forward in the short term.
"Legally, the city has authority to blow off the question," he said. "I think that would be an idiotic thing to do.
"What I would support is that we just pause and reflect where we are with the hydro process," Frisch continued. "I still believe the community would still like to see some type of hydro electricity created within our valley. But we need to take some steps to gain some trust on how we are going to manage that process, regarding financing, regarding environmental stewardship."
The city should have spent more time talking about the benefits of hydroelectric power, he added, rather than railing against the fact that opponents relied on anonymous donors to fuel their campaign.
Tom and Maureen Hirsch, vocal opponents of the project and residents on the banks of Castle Creek, said they might have supported a city initiative that was more eclectic. A mix of micro hydroelectric projects with other types of renewable energy efforts such as wind and solar power would be more acceptable to the community, they said, but the city instead decided to focus all of its efforts on Castle and Maroon creeks.
"I think that this type of project is a conventional type of hydropower project," Maureen Hirsch said, adding that the city should have explored ways of doing hydro without requiring massive diversions from the two streams.
"It was an uninspired project, a blast-from-the-past misplaced look at nostalgia," Tom Hirsch added. "The streams are precious and irreplaceable, and kilowatts are commodities. So we have a choice in looking at affecting precious streams that are living ecosystems versus commodity kilowatts which we can derive from thoughtful, eclectic sources."
The Hirsches said they were impressed that voters sorted through the many complexities surrounding the issue and realized that you can't solve an environmental problem by creating another one.
Over the last two years, city officials and others supporting the project, including Mayor Mick Ireland, sought to turn the debate into one of environmental stewardship, saying the hydroplant on Castle Creek would eventually eliminate the city electric utility's reliance on power generated by coal, a nonrenewable resource.