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Unanimous vote decides controversial El Paso County wind farm plan

February 6, 2015 Updated: February 6, 2015 at 8:37 am
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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 

Nearly 15 hours after they began, the El Paso County commissioners voted unanimously to approve controversial wind farm project Thursday night.

NextEra Energy Resources, the owner of the project, hopes to reroute sections of it to put a 29-mile above-ground power line that stretches across the plains surrounding Calhan and Falcon. The commissioners approved the wind farm in 2013 before a change the above-ground line change had been requested.

At about 11:45 p.m. Thursday the commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the proposed change. Commissioner Sally Clark was absent.

The proposed route has stirred controversy among residents who fear the wind farm and all that comes with it will destroy their way of life.

But a group of farmers and ranchers argued that the board's decision could usher in needed economic prosperity to a region where the agricultural way of life has been dying.

NextEra began the board's meeting at 9 a.m., and after it spent a couple of hours discussing the project, scores of residents who wanted to speak in support of or against the project took the microphone.

Testimony also included a Canadian environmental health expert who refuted claims that emissions from the towers would have negative health effects.

The only break in the affair was a 7 p.m. pause for dinner and an executive session called for by county attorney Amy Folsom to advise the commissioners and to discuss agenda items, she said.

Public comment continued until 10 p.m., when NextEra was given a chance to issue a rebuttal.

The rebuttal was ongoing as of press time.

The Golden West wind project would stretch across more than 30,000 acres around Calhan and Falcon, putting wind turbines and power poles on at least 165 properties.

NextEra hopes to put 145 450-foot tall wind turbines in the area.

On Jan. 6, the county's planning commission rejected NextEra's proposed changes to the approved project - a nonbinding decision that was based on the company's lack of community input and concerns over health risks.

The wind farm project was initially approved by the commissioners in December 2013, when it was owned by Clipper Windpower.

NextEra purchased the project shortly thereafter and asked to amend the plan, moving the 230-kilowatt power line above ground to circumvent Meadow Lake Airport. The company also asked to increase the length of the turbine blades in exchange for reducing the number of turbines.

The power lines have been the subject of bitter debate between neighbors, some of whom decided to lease land to NextEra for hundreds of thousands of dollars. For those who rejected the power lines - or in many cases would merely be living next to them - they feared the 112-foot-tall poles would hurt their property values and destroy their views. Some residents expressed concern that exposure to electro-magnetic fields generated by the power line would be harmful to their health.

But even those homeowners who spoke in favor of the power line admitted they had misgivings. Falcon resident Jim Ozburn, who owns the Falcon Food Store, listened to customer after customer speak against or in favor of the wind farm, he told the commissioners Thursday.

Ultimately, he didn't want the power lines blocking his view. But after some thought, Ozburn decided that he would support the project.

Neighbor John Field said he initially rejected NextEra's offer to lease land for power lines in exchange for a one-time payment.

He was swayed by the economic potential the farm could bring to El Paso County.

"I have to tell you at first it was a hard decision when NextEra came," he told the commissioners.

Field realized that, as a person who supports sustainable energy, he had to support the project regardless of how much it could change the landscape.

"Somebody has to start somewhere," he said.

While ranchers and farmers hailed the wind farm and transmission lines as a "shot in the arm" for a region that has lost ranch land to subdivisions, many of their neighbors were distressed at the prospect of the project dominating the skyline.

David Gil, the project's manager for NextEra, brought simulated "before" and "after" images to the meeting showing the horizon with and without wind turbines.

Many audience members gasped when Gil showed images of the turbine tips peaking above the horizon of the Paint Mines Interpretive Park in Calhan.

Residents' fears that people will lose interest in living outside of Calhan because of the farm are not totally unfounded, El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker said. While Schleiker spoke with assessors of northeastern Colorado counties with wind farms - where no real estate impacts were reported - he said El Paso County's farm would be different.

"It is important to note that the (northeastern) wind farms are not located in residential neighborhoods," he said. "Some purchasers view transmission lines as not compelling."

But Schleiker has not seen property values react to the proposed wind farm and suggested that wind turbines are becoming a part of the "typical landscape" of El Paso County.

Even if their property values don't suffer, many residents said the emotional value of their homes and properties would be lost. Those who would live next to the power lines said they would feel violated by their presence - unable to enjoy their land and prevented from selling it.

While some people championed NextEra's role in the community, residents such as Amber Costa resent the company.

"If they are coming in here claiming to be neighbors, then they are not going about it in the right way," she said.

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