Aspen crafts hydroplant ballot language
August 29, 2012
ASPEN – Officials played the role of ballot-language editors during a City Council work session Tuesday, simplifying a proposed Nov. 6 advisory question on the future of the Castle Creek hydroelectric plant.
The final revision reads as such: “Shall the city of Aspen complete the hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek, subject to local stream health monitoring and applicable government regulations, to replace coal-fired energy with renewable energy?”
At the beginning of the 4 p.m. meeting, Randy Ready, assistant city manager, and City Attorney Jim True laid out three separate ballot-language options, with the second alternative being the most verbose. It described a “1.175-megawatt renewable hydroelectric energy facility” to bring the city’s electric utility “closer to the goal of 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2015.”
Councilmen Adam Frisch and Steve Skadron then argued for more simplicity, leading to the revision, a mix of the three options.
“My overall suggestion is that we use as few words as possible to keep it simple and clean,” Frisch said, adding that he was concerned about the possibility of a lawsuit against the city in a few years should the project fail to deliver on the 100 percent renewable energy goal.
Mayor Mick Ireland, the council’s strongest proponent of the Castle Creek hydroplant, said the ballot language is necessary to provide some type of reason why the city is asking voters for permission to proceed with the project. At his behest, the environmentally supportive phrase “to replace coal-fired energy” was added to the revised ballot item.
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“That’s what it does, and that’s the truth,” the mayor said. “To me it’s about replacing coal, and then secondarily, it pays for itself, and it’s cheaper than other alternatives.”
Later in the discussion, Skadron, who is a marketing specialist, pointed out that the plant’s official name, the Castle Creek Energy Center, was a bit scary-sounding. Utilities director Dave Hornbacher said that name came about when the project initially was to include other sources of energy generation besides hydroelectric power, including solar.
Some of the others agreed that “Castle Creek Energy Center” sounded like some sort of behemoth, and the ballot language was again revised to say, “hydroelectric facility on Castle Creek.”
A special council meeting, including public hearings, to make the ballot language for the hydroelectric facility official – and also a 0.35 percent sales-tax increase to benefit the Aspen School District – is scheduled for Sept. 4 at City Hall. The tax increase would raise an estimated $1.75 million annually, revenue that would funnel through an independent entity created by the Aspen Education Foundation before making its way to local schools.
So far, the city has spent more than $7 million on the hydroelectric project, which aims to take a portion of the water flowing from Castle and Maroon creeks to generate enough power to cover 8 percent of the city electric utility’s needs. In 2007, when voters approved a bond-issue referendum that set the hydroplant project into motion, the project cost was estimated at $6.2 million. Cost overruns have resulted in a revised estimate of $10.5 million to complete the plant.
A petition drive led by local residents Ward Hauenstein and Maurice Emmer early this year set off a chain of events leading to the council’s action on Tuesday. The petition, validated by the city clerk in February, sought to overturn the council’s December rezoning decision allowing public land off Power Plant Road to be used for the plant.
In all, petition organizers gathered signatures from 953 voters, well over the number necessary to overturn the council’s zoning decision. Project opponents said they wanted the future of the hydroplant to be decided by referendum, and the council relented.
After Tuesday’s work session, Hauenstein said the ballot language that council members crafted was OK with him.
“The language that they chose doesn’t have a slant to it, so I support it,” he said.
Near the close of the meeting, Ireland voiced concerns about an anti-project flier mailed out to Aspen voters last week. The flier’s source is listed as Friends of Castle and Maroon Creeks. A representative of the nonprofit group American Rivers said in an email to The Aspen Times that his organization paid for the publication and its mailing.
The group did not note that in the flier.
Ireland has long contended that there is big money from a behind-the-scenes Castle Creek-area landowner funding the opposition effort. He said he isn’t sure if the flier or the group that paid for it is violating campaign-finance laws.
“I do know that from an ethical point of view, (the flier) doesn’t tell you who these people are,” he said. “Is this just another shadow group that’s intended to mask the donors, so you find out who these guys are, but they got their money from another group and another group. … It’s all offshore Bahamian island-financing mystery stuff.
“When you go to trial, you have a right to know who the witnesses are and what their motivation is,” Ireland continued. “That’s an important part of judging the value of what they’re saying. If this group is funded by American Rivers, then the question becomes, who’s funding American Rivers?”
Matt Rice, Colorado Conservation Director for American Rivers, said his organization is supported by more than 100,000 members and other donors nationwide.
“We believe that this mailer was entirely necessary to provide a counterpoint to (a city mailer that accompanied a utility bill) which we believe was distributed through an unfair and inappropriate forum,” he said in his email.
“The city continues to marginalize the public’s interest and to dismiss opposition to the project as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard opposition) or part of a certain billionaire’s plan,” the email added. “It is neither. The public is concerned with how this project has been proposed, its cost and its disproportionate impact to the creeks. Many believe, based on the data provided by the city, that the small amount of power generated by the CCEC is not worth the long-term damage to Castle and Maroon creeks. This is a reasonable concern and should not be dismissed in the manner that it has.”