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Holy Cross headache?

Allyn HarveyAspen Times Staff Writer
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A clearly stunned county planning and zoning commission Tuesday rejected a proposal by Holy Cross Electric to string transmission lines through the open space along Brush Creek.”The lines look funky – it’s not good,” said longtime planning commissioner Steve Whipple.It wasn’t the basic idea of running transmission lines into Snowmass Village and building a distribution substation that stunned the planning commissioners Tuesday night. Holy Cross has been talking about the need to boost capacity in Snowmass for close to five years.What stunned the commissioners were the pictures of what metal power poles, 60 to 90 feet tall, and transmission lines look like in the middle of approximately $9 million in publicly protected open space.After hearing a presentation from Holy Cross and the county planning department, the planning commissioners soundly recommended denial of the application.”They strongly recommended that the lines be undergrounded,” said Debbie Quinn, assistant county manager. They also recommended approval of a code amendment that allows the utility to continue with the application process.Holy Cross representatives were unfazed by the recommendation of denial. Holy Cross, an electric power cooperative that has been providing service to the Roaring Fork Valley for decades, submitted its proposal with the expectation that it will be denied by Pitkin County with direction to put the wires underground.The county commissioners will consider the application that the P&Z found so unpalatable on May 19.”I think everyone wants it undergrounded, and everybody wants someone else to pay for it,” said Bob Schultz, the utility’s planningconsultant on the project.In fact, the estimated cost of burying the transmission lines is about $7.8 million more than building them above ground. So the utility and the two governments involved with the decision are going to have to figure a way to equitably pass the cost on to the customers. Three proposals are on the table.One would place responsibility for all the additional costs on customers living in the town of Snowmass Village. That would increase by more than 17 percent the average residential electric bill. The average business electric bill would increase 20 percent.The second would create a surcharge area that includes all the users in the service area of the new power lines, affecting homes and businesses in Snowmass Village, Owl Creek, Wildcat and Brush Creek Village. It would add a little more than 16 percent to the average residential bill and 18.5 percent to the amount commercial customers pay each month. The third and broadest potential surcharge area would be two-tiered. The users in the service area would pay 80 percent of the cost, and residents and businesses in the Roaring Fork Valley between Basalt and Aspen would pay 20 percent.Residential and commercial customers in the service area would pay monthly surcharges of 13 percent and 15 percent, respectively, while residential bills outside the service area would go up 2.4 percent and commercial bills 2.7 percent.Base Village developer Intrawest has expressed a strong interest in seeing the lines buried, and it offered to cover about 25 percent of the added cost, which lowers the monthly charge considerably for most users.The Pitkin County commissioners are scheduled to meet with the Snowmass Village Town Council on June 12 to decide which, if any, of the above proposals are acceptable.Both communities have large stakes in finding a solution. Taxpayers in Pitkin County and Snowmass Village have invested more than $9 million to purchase land and conservation easements to protect Brush Creek Valley from development.”If we can get this power line below ground, we’re safe,” said Dale Will, director of the Pitkin County open space and trails program. “If they go above ground, there will likely be some open space lost.”If the governments cannot agree on how to pay for burying the lines, Schultz said the Colorado Public Utility Commission is likely to order construction of the above-ground proposal that the county planning and zoning commission found so offensive.The new, larger transmission lines will replace the existing distribution lines that are buried under the floor of the valley next to Brush Creek, adding significant capacity to the Snowmass Village area. If all three entities agree to bury the lines, they will be buried where the lines are currently buried.Two major projects – the Snowmass Center and Base Village – that are in the town’s review process make the new transmission lines a necessity in the near future. But Schultz pointed out that the switch is needed even without the added demand from those two projects, because the transformers located at the Aspen Business Center that serve the entire upper valley are already at full capacity.”A third of the time during the year, if a transformer went out there would be no way to avoid a blackout,” Schultz said. “We’re already in a zone that utilities try to avoid.”[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]


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