Council approves zoning for proposed Aspen hydro plant
December 13, 2011
ASPEN – For nearly nine hours split between two meetings at Aspen City Hall on Monday, experts, consultants, residents and city officials debated the pros and cons of the proposed Castle Creek hydroelectric facility.
When the discourse was finally over at 10:20 p.m., the City Council voted unanimously to advance the project, conditionally approving a staff request to rezone property off Power Plant Road west of Aspen for a 1,761-square-foot building that would serve as the plant’s operations center. The vote also removes the land from the city’s open space inventory.
The council made its decision 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.
Like many of the critics, Councilman Adam Frisch cited the rising costs of a project originally tagged at slightly more $6 million but now estimated at $10.5 million. He also pressed the attorney handling the city’s application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a license to operate a plant about the value of making the land-use decision in advance of FERC approval, which could take years.
But in the end, Frisch – the newest member of the council, who was elected in May – went along with his peers in seeing the value of voting to rezone the property, thus showing FERC that the city is committed to hydroelectric power. The zoning won’t go into effect unless FERC grants a license.
“If all of us were to say no, … would we be opening ourselves to a higher cost?” Frisch asked attorney Karl Kumli III, of Boulder.
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“I believe you would,” Kumli replied.
The attorney, who on behalf of the city Monday filed pre-application documents with FERC for a license to operate a “minor water power project,” then restated the reasons he believes the zoning approval would help the city’s case – something he had already done several times throughout the day of lengthy meetings.
“I think you strengthen your case, you show a greater commitment to the project and you move ahead in a stronger position if you adopt this ordinance tonight,” Kumli said.
Council members heard from numerous opponents throughout the day, some of them landowners along the banks and within the watershed of Castle and Maroon creeks. An afternoon work session was designed to answer questions elected officials had about the project at large; the council’s regular meeting during the evening was supposed to focus only on the land-use request. In both instances, the public was allowed to comment.
Just prior to the vote, Mayor Mick Ireland gently rebuffed Aspen resident Connie Harvey, who has made her concerns about the project widely known over the past few years.
“We’re about to vote, and if I let you comment, I have to let everybody comment,” Ireland said, noting that Harvey had already been allowed to air her comments to council members twice Monday.
“At some point, process must end and a decision has to be made,” Ireland told Harvey. “There will be plenty more [time to] comment, I’m sure, about whatever it is you have on your mind. … If I do it for you, I have to let everybody back in.”
Between meetings, Ireland went to the dentist for a root canal, and at one point he joked that he didn’t know which was more painful – the procedure or the meetings.
The day began at 11:30 a.m., prior to the 1 p.m. work session, when representatives of the Washington, D.C.-based group American Rivers discussed a report it commissioned to evaluate the economic feasibility of the project.
The report, conducted by Tier One Capital Management LLC, questions the city’s estimate of $10.5 million for the project’s cost and puts the actual price tag at more than $16 million, citing interest payments on bonds used to finance construction. City officials have disputed the report and its conclusions, saying that it contains “egregious errors.”
At the work session, City Manager Steve Barwick discussed financial aspects of the plant and noted that the city need only spend a little more than $3 million more to complete the project. Most of that amount is for the building on Power Plant Road. An estimated $275,000 has been projected for handling the FERC application process.
Barwick stressed that the project is the best way to further the city’s goal of supplying 100 percent renewable energy through its electricity utility. He said every financial model shows that the new plant would save the community money in the long run.
The project is not without supporters. During Monday’s meetings, former Mayor Bill Stirling and former Councilman Jim Markalunas spoke of its merits. Also, Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, praised the measured manner in which the city has been proceeding on the project, and Nathan Ratledge, executive director of the Community Office of Resource Efficiency, gave his endorsement of the initiative.
But they were far outnumbered by those who sought delay on the eventual vote, including Tom Hirsch, who made a passionate plea for more review of the project.
“It isn’t a bad idea to cut bait when you’ve made mistakes,” he said.
Opponents often bring up the city’s initial plan to seek a “conduit exemption” from FERC, which would have meant less stringent environmental review of the plant’s operations. The city opted to seek the “minor water power license” following mediation sessions with opponents and the critical outcry.
Resident Betsy Starodoj also spoke, saying she doesn’t want an “industrial facility” in her neighborhood.
Councilman Steve Skadron suggested that the overall benefits outweigh the concerns of an extremely vocal minority.
“The creeks belong to everyone in the community, not those who are the most vocal about it,” he said.
Monday night’s regular meeting was the council’s last such gathering of 2011.