Glenwood council gives Xcel hillside towers the boot

Heather McGregor
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox/Post IndependentThe rust-colored steel tower erected by Xcel Energy behind the hot springs lodge and the vapor caves last fall in Glenwood Springs continues to be a topic of concern for citizens who question whether or not the proper procedures were followed before construction.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The oversized electric utility towers erected on the hillside above North Glenwood have got to go.

In a 6-1 vote on Thursday, the Glenwood Springs City Council overturned the city planning commission’s after-the-fact approval of the electric towers, and demanded that Xcel file an application for a new tower design by Oct. 31.

Xcel Energy installed the towers in October 2010 without a special use permit and in violation of the 27-foot height restrictions in the city’s hillside preservation zone.

“I have a hard time buying the story that you didn’t know you had to come before the city. It’s appalling,” said Councilman Leo McKinney. He repeatedly called the new towers “ugly.”

In the $1.2 million project, Xcel removed 17 older 30-foot power poles and replaced them with four larger poles. Three of the poles are 50 to 60 feet tall, and a fourth pole farther up the hill is 100 feet tall.

North Glenwood property owner Dean Moffat appealed the planning commission’s after-the-fact approval to council.

“At first, I was just worried about the effects on my land. But this evolved into a tremendous effect on my community. City Council took the long view and really faced up to the right way to process improvements for our community,” Moffat said following the meeting.

Prior to voting, McKinney and Councilmen Todd Leahy and David Sturges grilled a team of three Xcel officials over the utility’s failure to seek a special use permit.

“None of us can skirt the process,” said Leahy. “What made you think you could?”

“How many lawyers does Xcel have?” asked Sturges, who drew on his own background as a lawyer to pursue a pointed five-minute cross examination of the Xcel staffers.

“What would it cost to take down the towers and replace them with towers of a more conventional height?” Sturges asked. “How many other projects do you do without obtaining special use permits?”

Michael Diehl, supervisor for siting and land rights for Xcel, admitted the utility erred in not seeking the special use permit.

“It wasn’t intentional, but we were negligent,” Diehl told the council.

“There was some documentation from when the property was sold to the city that led us to believe it wasn’t necessary,” he said, referring to the utility’s sale of the property to the city government decades ago.

Installation of the new towers was prompted by the Glenwood Springs Electric’s upgrade of electrical equipment at the North Glenwood substation, Diehl said. That the city-owned electric utility did not seek a permit for that work was another factor leading his team to assume Xcel didn’t need to seek a permit.

“We made a number of unfortunate assumptions,” Diehl said.

Prior to questioning the Xcel staffers, council heard from North Glenwood property owners complaining about the size and location of the towers. Dean Moffat, Floyd Diemoz, Sig Olsen and David Anselmo spoke out, along with attorney Steve Beattie representing John Haines.

Beattie said Xcel’s actions to date – to install the towers and then come to the city asking forgiveness – are unconscionable. He defined the word as “something bad without a really good explanation.”

“These towers sit in the most historic district of the city, and they’re the ugliest thing in the city,” said Anselmo, an owner of the Yampah Vapor Caves, which are directly downhill from the substation and towers.

Midway through the meeting, former mayor Bruce Christensen arrived, and told council about conversations he had last fall with Xcel officials.

“We had the option to ask Xcel to remove the towers completely. But we were going into winter, and there was the possibility that Rifle wouldn’t have enough power to get through the winter months,” Christensen said.

“I was told, ‘Let us keep it through the winter, and then we will come back with something that is aesthetically pleasing.’ That hasn’t happened. I don’t care what it costs. They need to get that thing out of there. They gave us their word,” he added.

After some debate over how to hold Xcel accountable in denying the special use permit, council members decided to require the utility to submit a new application no later than Oct. 31.

That likely means a new plan for electric lines would be worked out over the winter, and the towers would be removed in 2012.