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Some El Paso County residents may have to pay big to stop wind farm project

May 11, 2015 Updated: May 27, 2015 at 10:34 pm
photo -  The sun is reflected off of a wind turbine at a wind farm near Peetz, Colo., in this Jan. 29, 2007 photo. AP File
The sun is reflected off of a wind turbine at a wind farm near Peetz, Colo., in this Jan. 29, 2007 photo. AP File 

A group of eastern El Paso County residents could have to dig up millions of dollars to stop construction on a wind farm near their homes outside of Calhan, according to El Paso County court documents.

The disgruntled homeowners have sued the El Paso County commissioners and NextEra Energy Resources to stop construction of the wind farm, which the commissioners approved in 2013. The homeowners, part of the newly formed El Paso County Property Rights Coalition, also filed an injunction to stop work on the project, something the court won't do until the residents pay up, court documents show.

For NextEra, halting the project would mean a potential loss of millions invested in constructing the wind farm, something that the company believes should be compensated for if it is forced to stop its work. All told, NextEra plans to invest $400 million in the farm - even if residents were to pay for one percent of the project's costs, it would cost them $4 million, NextEra noted in a court motion filed in April. El Paso County District Court Judge Larry Schwartz granted the motion the same day, although he did not specify the amount residents would have to pay.

Both the commissioners and NextEra have asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Schwartz requested time to review the case before a court date was set, residents said.

The project would erect more than 100 wind turbines south of Calhan and a 29-mile above-ground powerline with poles strewn across a patchwork of private properties on the plains. The commissioners approved the initial project plan with an underground powerline in 2013, but in February they approved an amended plan with above ground lines.

That decision in particular rankled many county residents, who were incensed that their mountain views would be obscured. Others raised concerns over the potential negative health impacts of living next to the lines. But more than 160 residents leased NextEra land for the powerlines, and many long-time ranchers in the area hailed the project as a much-need economic boost.

Nonetheless, since the commissioners approved changes to the Golden West wind farm project during a marathon meeting on Feb. 5, a scrappy group of Calhan-area homeowners have been fighting to halt or ban the project.

The El Paso County Property Rights Coalition holds regular meetings with residents at the Falcon fire station, where they share the latest news about the lawsuit and swap stories about dealings with NextEra and the county. Donna Bryant, a Peyton resident who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, ordered the group special T-shirts - emblazoned with a wind turbine and the words "wind farm fraud" - that she sells for $20 apiece. Bryant wore the black shirt to the group's latest meeting on May 5, and encouraged her neighbors to buy one and wear them around town to get conversation started.

The group has a little more than $4,000 in donations in its coffers, some of which will go to lawyers' fees, and nowhere near enough money to get an injunction - possibly up to $400 million, the cost of the entire project, said Laura Phares-Wilson, another plaintiff.

Meanwhile, evidence of the impending wind farm is appearing on county roads, some of which must be temporarily widened to accommodate wind farm traffic. Trucks hauling equipment for the wind farm are supposed to stick to specific routes, which residents like Sandy Wolfe have been watching hawkishly.

"A range war has started," she said.

At an informational meeting held by the county two weeks ago, residents raised concerns about trucks not staying on their routes, said John Clack, a county construction services manager.

"They are restricted to certain roads, and I guess I would say that I have not seen them off the haul routes," Clack said. "But there were quite a few questions about trucks being off the haul routes at our first meeting, and because of that, they have ordered some signs that say 'no haul route traffic.'"

Rumors of trucks running cars off the road have spread among neighbors in the area, but Clack has received no reports of issues. If the county finds that trucks are deviating from their haul routes, then Blattner Energy, the contractor, will be notified, Clack said.

In response to resident concerns, Blattner has asked that speed limits be reduced on some roads, a request that the county is working on, Clack said. The county announced plans to host monthly informational meetings about the wind farm, but a date for the next meeting has not been set, Clack said.

The wind farm has inspired area neighbors to get to know one another and band together, said Bryant, who saw some new faces in the last meeting's crowd. The issue has spurred Wolfe to get to know her neighbors as well - at the very least to understand their positions on the wind farm, she said.

"I determined that I better go out and get to know my neighbors," she said. "And I have found that 95 percent of the people out here do not want it."

Wolfe claims that the wind farm has driven several people away from the area - people who had planned to call the Calhan area home for many years.

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