Pole Position

Ruby Hill-area residents want to protect their views from eleven-story utility poles, but Xcel thinks it has the juice.

It was barely ten minutes into the mediation session before the first cooperative agreement was reached: I was to be kicked out of the meeting.

The consensus was that participants would not feel comfortable with media in the room — and by media, they meant me, the guy in the back. It's good to find common ground, I suppose; certainly, there's been little of it since Xcel Energy proposed upgrading electrical transmission lines atop Ruby Hill Park with taller towers. The eleven-story utility poles will not only violate a longstanding ordinance protecting the park's view, but it will also reinforce the longstanding perception of shabby government treatment held by many of the poor and working-class residents of southwest Denver.

I had caught wind of the July 19 gathering only hours before. Another community meeting, I assumed. Hired hacks. Flow charts. A few cranks hogging the microphone. What I encountered behind the "Bridal Room" door in the modest neighborhood church more closely resembled a hastily organized negotiation summit. Delegates from Xcel Energy, the mayor's office, Denver City Council and the Department of Public Works squeezed around a table too large for the room. Across from them were representatives from Ruby Hill, Athmar Park, Overland, Mar Lee and West Washington Park neighborhood groups — all of whom, just a handful of days prior, practically begged for reporters to answer their calls. What a difference a meeting can make. In the hour after I was asked to leave, everyone signed a non-disclosure agreement so that their negotiations would remain private.

"It's pretty sensitive," explains Chris Nevitt, the newly inaugurated councilman who took over Kathleen MacKenzie's District 7 seat. "A lot of nerves are frayed," he says. "A lot of bad blood has already gone under the bridge. I could throw another metaphor in there if you want."

No, that won't be necessary.

Instead, some history: Power transmission towers have always stood in Ruby Hill Park. In fact, it wasn't until after the parallel power lines were built in 1949 and 1955, respectively, that the large hill was developed into a park. In 1968, Public Service Company of Colorado deeded the land under the lines to the city, with the condition that the utility company retain a 75-foot-wide easement so it could maintain and upgrade the lines. The next year, the city passed a "view plane" ordinance, limiting the height of buildings and other structures to protect the park's mountain overlook.

But as the area developed, so did the need for energy. Xcel spokesman Tom Henley says that customers have increased by 10 percent in the past decade, and consumption has risen more dramatically. "Whether it's computers, big-screen TVs, air conditioners, we don't know," Henley says. "And in the system as a whole, we've seen an increase in our peak demand usage of 60 percent. Customers can call for and use as much power as they want. However, if we have constraints on the transmission lines and don't have the ability to get the power to them, that's when you have controlled outages. And that's the last thing we want to run into."

In 2003, Xcel Energy gained approval from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for a $19 million upgrade on its western-most line. Denver's zoning office gave its approval in 2005, and Xcel began ordering new poles that would be between 84 and 111 feet tall, which is 7 to 26 feet higher than the current lattice-style towers. The plan was to have all the poles installed before this summer, but the company hit a snag in February when the City Attorney's Office belatedly related that five of the ten towers scheduled to run through Ruby Hill Park were too tall and would violate the view plane.

Then-councilwoman MacKenzie says her office had been aware of the possible infringement since first learning about the project in 2003, and "at the time, my office said, 'We'd prefer that some of these lines be undergrounded. And if not, can they be moved off the crest of the hill to the railroad right-of-way along the Platte, where most of the other lines are?' And then we didn't hear from them for years."

Xcel says that while the new towers atop Ruby Hill Park cost $600,000, burying the lines would set them back $5 million. Plus, before a utility can bury power transmission lines, it must get approval from the PUC, which strictly states that undergrounding can only occur for safety reasons or if it is cheaper than raising the lines in the air. The rule is meant to protect consumers from shouldering rate hikes prompted by unnecessary projects. However, a utility is allowed to bury power lines for aesthetic reasons if the cost difference is paid by a city or other entity. And thus far, neither the City of Denver nor the neighborhood groups surrounding Ruby Hill have offered to pick up the $4.4 million tab.

The power company appealed to the Denver Planning Board for a variance from the view-plane ordinance, but it was soundly rejected on May 1. Rather than head back to the drawing board, Xcel appealed to Councilman Charlie Brown, who represents nearby District 6. Brown responded on June 13 by introducing an ordinance exempting Xcel's towers from the view plane. In a Blueprint Denver committee meeting that evening, MacKenzie scolded Brown, a longtime foil, for behavior "beneath the integrity of this body." "It is repugnant to me that some councilpeople can say 'Well, let them eat chemotherapy,'" she said in a ten-minute fume that can be accessed at www.westword.com.

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