An expansive wind farm is looming in El Paso County's future - a project stretching south of Calhan that could put more than 100 towering wind turbines across the plains east of Colorado Springs.
The project, owned by Next- Era Energy Resources, has become the source of much controversy for residents who face a future of the turbines on their horizon. For long-time ranchers, the wind farm means an overdue boost to an economically depressed region, particularly in Calhan. But hobby farmers and small property owners fear that the project and its above-ground power lines threaten their Front Range views and property values.
While 165 homeowners around Calhan have agreed to let NextEra turbines and power lines on their land, many of their neighbors contest the project and have fought for months to get it shut down. Yet another group opposes a 29-mile power line held up by poles with a maximum height of 112 feet - taller than the average telephone pole - that would stretch north and west of the Meadow Lake Airport.
"There are two separate groups: the folks out in Calhan, who are still trying to fight that whole wind farm," said Jay Kennedy, a resident who could have the above-ground power lines pass by his property. The second group is like him, he said - people who only object to the power line. "I'm not trying to fight that. As far as I am concerned, that wind farm is going to happen. What I am trying to fight, though, are the power lines."
Although NextEra has begun buying land leases for the power lines, the rerouted and above-ground line has yet to be approved by the El Paso County commissioners.
When NextEra presented the project's changes to the county planning commission Jan. 6, the commission rejected the plan and echoed Kennedy's concerns about the changes - health risks, equipment eyesores and infringing on private property rights.
But the planning commission's opinion is merely a guideline for the commissioners, who will either reject or accept the project changes Thursday.
A wind farm has been in the works for the plains around Calhan since at least 2007, but for many residents the project became a concern only after NextEra purchased it in 2013 and planned to change the route and move the power line above ground. As NextEra approached residents to lease land for the power line, word about the wind farm's new look spread through the area.
"The guy next to me sold out, but those lines are right on top of me," said Kennedy, who is particularly worried that the lines will cost him a view of Pikes Peak. "That is going to be wrecked as soon as that comes through here."
NextEra has been issued permits to use 130-foot tall power lines, although the actual poles will be no shorter than 87 feet and no taller than 112 feet, said David Gil, the project's director for NextEra.
Bob Wilcox, who has been cattle ranching in the area for decades, welcomes the wind farm as a potential economic surge for the dead farm community of Calhan.
"We've lost our railroad. It's dead," he said. "We used to have four or five gas stations. The town's dying. Ramah is basically dead. Peyton is basically dead."
Construction of the wind farm will generate 250 jobs and would bring millions of dollars over 25 years to residents who allow the turbines on their properties, Gil said.
"This is the first time in 40 or 50 years that there has been a real bona fide economic development," Wilcox said.
'An economic boost'
This isn't the first time Wilcox has been courted by wind companies - he started seeing wind farm project pitches in 1980s, and in 2007 he sold lease rights on his ranch for wind turbines to Clipper Windpower, the initial owner of what would become NextEra's farm.
When the county commissioners approved the project in 2013, the plan had been to put the power lines below ground to avoid the Meadow Lake Airport. But, to save costs, NextEra hopes to reroute the power line, extending it by 4 miles to skirt the airport and keep the lines above ground. The plan rejected by the planning commission would cut costs and make the power line easier to maintain, Gil said.
"There are a number of obstacles underground that makes going underground not feasible, including the narrow right-of-way adjacent to U.S. 24, the Rock Island Trail, a number of creeks and other utility lines," Gil said.
In exchange for raising the turbines' height to 453 feet, the new plan would decrease the number of turbines from 145 to 126. The $400 million project comes with a maximum generating capacity of 250 megawatts of power - that would come to 1 million megawatt hours per year, enough to power more than 62,000 homes a year, Gil said. The energy would be sold to Public Service Company of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy, meaning the power could trickle to homes and businesses anywhere in the state, which can sometimes include Colorado Springs Utilities, Gil said.
NextEra has also been courting landowners, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to get approval to put power lines and turbines on private property, residents say. The company will pay 165 property owners different amounts annually to use land for the wind turbines and power lines - which will come to $40 million "during the 25-year life of the project," Gil said. NextEra also offered landowners signing bonuses if they agreed to lease land for lines - a cost that company will have to swallow if the county commissioners reject the rezoned plan, Gil said.
Gil would not discuss the specific amount of payments for the turbines, nor would he discuss the amount of each signing bonus.
One area resident, who asked to remain anonymous since NextEra asked her not to discuss the deal, said she was offered $250,000 to put power lines on her property. She rejected the offer.
Wilcox, who would have turbines on his property, declined to discuss how much NextEra offered to pay him. But ultimately, he said, it's not about the money, but about the potential jobs and renewable energy.
"If I just wanted to cash in, I'd just break up my ranch into 40-acre parcels" and sell, he said. The community needs the farm. "It's an economic boost that many of us have fought for, and that we have fought for, for many decades."
Although the planning commission has suggested that the commissioners not accept NextEra's plan to change the power line route, Gil doesn't believe that a rejection will stymie the project entirely.
"I can't say it would be fatal to the project if the commissioners deny the rezoning," he said. "If the rezoning is not approved, it will lead to further discussions. I believe this is a better project that was approved in 2013. We have a lot of experience with these types of projects. The previous owners never built wind farms or power lines and did some things we would not do. We are trying to improve the project."
If the plan is approved, construction will start in late March and continue through Dec. 1, Gil said.
Regardless of the farm's potential economic benefits - or even whether the power line gets put above ground - the project's transformation of the plains south of Calhan is a hard fact for residents like Laura Foye to accept. Foye, who is horrified by the prospect of power lines transversing her rural neighborhood, has spent months absorbing information she can about wind farms.
"I didn't really know the different kinds of power lines," she said. "I now feel like this kind of power line-nerd. I can look at these power lines and tell if its a single circuit or a double circuit."
Since a few of her Falcon neighbors to the south, southeast and southwest along Sunset Trail all signed leases for power lines with NextEra, Foye believes that the lines will devalue her 5-acre farm, a spot where she and her husband had hoped to live indefinitely. Now that hope is less certain, she said.
"It drastically changed how I feel about this area, how I feel about my home," said Foye of the plan for the power line.
County officials have assured her that property values will not be affected based on properties near wind farms in northeastern Colorado. But Foye, who says she has read studies done in Montana that suggest otherwise, remains unconvinced.
"Areas where other wind farms are, are very, very remote," she said. "And they are not going through areas with other parcels. They just don't have the same situation that we do."
The plan has also drawn the scrutiny of outdoors enthusiasts, who have pushed to keep turbines away from the Paint Mines Interpretive Park.
In response to their concerns, the El Paso County Parks Advisory Board recommended that no turbines be built within 1½ miles of the park.
The company should also contribute $200,000 to mitigate noise impacts, the advisory board recommended. Although nonbinding, the board's stand brought a measure of relief to Trails and Open Space Coalition chief Susan Davies, who said people seek out the Paint Mines for tranquility.
Wind farms are steadily increasing in Colorado, as federal and state initiatives push utility companies to sell renewable energy around the country.
Colorado is among the best states in the county for wind energy - in 2014, the state was in the top 10 for wind energy capacity, and among the top five states that made the biggest increases in wind energy last year, according to data from the American Wind Energy Association.
In general, wind farms have "been very good for rural communities," said Emily Williams, the manager of industry data and analysis for the association. Property taxes and lease payments - for which NextEra plans to pay a combined $80 million near Calhan - are a boon for dwindling farming communities, Williams said.
"Farmers kind of see wind, if you will, as a kind of cash crop," she said.
Foye understands the allure of a lease payment, and like her neighbor Kennedy, she has no problems with the wind farm itself.
"I'm not trying to make the project go away," she said. "I just want them to bury the line."
Nonetheless, she mourns the loss of the unadulterated grass plains, and the open-space life she and her family sought.
"I know three people who are getting the payment from NextEra, and two of the three have talked about just leaving the area," she said. "This whole thing has been very eye opening - that things could change this much."
Gazette reporters Wayne Heilman and Lance Benzel contributed to this report.