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.
MacKenzie was also suspicious of the bill's timing, since it was to be voted on during the final week of her term. "I think [Brown] bet, incorrectly, that I would let it go through as a lame-duck councilperson," MacKenzie explains.
On the evening of the vote, the council chamber was packed with community activists bemoaning the new towers as an unsightly burden on the landscape and an assault on the view plane. But the legal issue on the table was whose rights should supersede: the city's right under the view-plane law or Xcel's right under the easement. The original towers existed before the height restriction, Xcel representatives argued, and were grandfathered in to the ordinance. That's true, testified Assistant City Attorney David Broadwell, but that exemption doesn't cover new structures, such as the proposed poles.
Councilman Brown thought the real subject came down to who will pay for money to bury the lines. "This is grow-up time!" he barked and then reproached opposing residents for not stepping up to the plate. Rudy Amiscaray was one person at the hearing who knows the true cost of the towers. For thirty years, the Ruby Hill resident has lived behind the current power lines until a replacement was installed and he "woke up one morning to find the ugly Xcel tower standing before me." Amiscaray's small post-war home is located along a low-lying gully and is dwarfed by the rust-colored spire. He points out that on top of Ruby Hill Park, one of Denver's most elevated points, the towers will be even more imposing. Weighing the issues, council voted six to five to postpone the vote until July 30 so that a mediated agreement could be reached.
But even if opponents of the towers are successful in persuading officials to vote no on the measure, they still have to contend with a 2001 law that enables the PUC to override municipal and county laws that prevent a utility from locating transmission lines. Brown declines to comment on the dispute until the non-disclosure agreement is lifted. But in a recent newsletter to constituents, he wrote that if the PUC trumps Denver's ordinances, it could set a bad precedent for the city's home-rule authority and take "cherished control away from local government."
The precedent that community groups fear, however, is one that allows the gutting of laws protecting the city's views. But even the possibility of a PUC overrule doesn't leave residents without options. MacKenzie said a referendum is in the works to take the pole issue to the voters. This would delay the project even longer, which may be one of the reasons why Xcel was willing to cram into a church bridal room with neighborhood leaders again this week to craft some kind of awkward marriage. No reporters allowed.
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