Power line application sparks debate
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Money is the only trip in the approval process that may keep the proposed electric transmission lines to Snowmass Village from being buried.
Everyone involved with the decision-making process is in agreement that the transmission lines should be buried, because if they aren’t life up Brush Creek will get ugly.
The mostly undeveloped entrance to Snowmass Ski Area along Brush Creek will be lined with dozens of 60- to 90-foot poles carrying seven major transmission lines up to a new substation near the Snowmass Club.
Holy Cross Electric, the utility cooperative that has been the primary source of power for residents of the Roaring Fork Valley since the middle of the last century, has applied to replace the existing underground distribution cables that serve Snowmass with much more powerful transmission lines.
The application inched forward yesterday, when the Pitkin County commissioners voted on first reading to amend the land-use code so Holy Cross can proceed with its application. Public utilities currently are not allowed in areas like Brush Creek Valley that are zoned for rural residential use.
The commissioners delayed voting on the application itself, however, putting off an expected denial of the overhead system, which is required before Holy Cross can even consider burying the lines.
Utility officials say the additional capacity is needed to serve the growing demand in both Aspen and Snowmass, especially with two major retail/residential proposals moving through Snowmass Village’s approval process. The two towns currently share power distributed by the transformer substation at the Aspen Business Center.
As proposed, the overhead lines up the Brush Creek Valley would run directly through approximately $9 million of publicly owned open space to a new substation in Hidden Valley above the Snowmass Club.
Holy Cross officials have made it clear that they are not willing to pass on the added cost of burying the lines, estimated at $7.85 million, to all 48,000 of their customers.
That leaves two questions for utility officials and policy makers in the county and the town: Who actually benefits and what’s the best method for billing them?
Holy Cross representatives have come up with three possibilities.
The first is to add a surcharge of more than 20 percent to the electric bills of homes and businesses within Snowmass Village town limits.
The second is to bill the people living in areas served by the new lines, including Brush Creek Village, Snowmass Village and Owl Creek.
And the third is to bill all Holy Cross customers between Basalt and Aspen, with residences and businesses of the Roaring Fork Valley paying enough to cover 20 percent of the added cost, and those in the service area covering 80 percent.
Three of the four county commissioners at yesterday’s meeting made it clear they prefer the second option.
Commissioner Shellie Roy said the only way she could justify passing on the costs to residents outside the service area, in neighborhoods like Meadowood, North 40 and Aspen Highlands Village, is if it results in the burying of the transmission lines that run up the Rio Grande trail from Woody Creek to Aspen.
Commissioner Mick Ireland said the people who stand to benefit most, the property owners in Brush Creek, Owl Creek and Snowmass Village, should pay the extra cost of burying the lines.
“I think the economic benefits of reduced visual impact are going to be received by the property owners,” he said. “Why isn’t it fair to ask the people who will receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits to pay another $12 a month to receive that benefit?”
Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he “doesn’t like sending costs down to Basalt.”
Only Commissioner Dorothea Farris expressed any willingness to consider a broader surcharge base, although she never said she supports the idea.
Commissioner Patti Clapper was not present.
Ireland also pointed out that when Woody Creek residents asked that the county bury the distribution lines that run through their neighborhood with a countywide surcharge, the commissioners said no.
The final decision about burying the lines actually lies with Holy Cross.
“If a local government rules that distribution or transmission lines should be placed underground, we then have the option to add a surcharge to pay for it,” said John Kemp, the attorney for the utility.
But if decision makers can’t come up with a plan that suits all three, Kemp said the state Public Utilities Commission, which has the power to overrule local jurisdictions, will likely order the new lines installed above ground.
Holy Cross officials have said that if there isn’t a consensus by June 30, they’ll take their case to the state.
The commissioners are scheduled to meet with their counterparts from Snowmass Village on June 12 to discuss their options for covering the cost of burying the lines.
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RFTA has a bit of a paradox on its hands. The public bus agency doesn’t anticipate it will haul as many passengers this winter but it needs more buses and drivers than ever. Only 15 people are allowed per bus, so that saps resources.