Residents brace for Xcel

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Connie Bell won't stand for it, literally. She said she would pack her bags and leave the home she grew up in if Xcel Energy builds a railroad on her property.

Bell, 43, grew up on the ranch just west of the entrance to Yampa Valley Regional Airport, immediately north of U.S. Highway 40. Her mother and father, who also live on the ranch, bought the property in 1978 after living there for several years.

Bell's parents are aware Xcel is looking at alternatives for delivering coal to the Hayden Station plant, but they are on vacation and have not seen the plans that specifically indicate the possibility of a railroad being built between Bell's house and their house.

"They haven't seen (the plan), and there's no reason for them to get stressed out about this right now," Bell said. "My dad would have a fit. He's said before they would have to condemn the property for them to get through it."

Xcel could do just that.

As a public utility provider, Xcel Energy could exercise its right of eminent domain to achieve a new means of coal delivery.

The Routt County Board of Commissioners recently approved a special-use permit that allows Xcel to receive the 1.8 million tons of coal it uses annually through truck delivery on Routt County Road 27. But, Xcel officials are weighing other coal-delivery possibilities that could be more cost-efficient.

The method the company chooses will be the delivery method for the life of Hayden Station, plant director Frank Roitsch said.

Several rail-delivery alternatives are being reviewed as possibilities, including rail spurs that would deliver coal directly to the plant, rail unloading facilities with conveyor belts to the plant, and unloading facilities for trucks to haul the coal the final stretch into the plant.

Informally proposed are: using a spur near Mount Harris, rebuilding and reusing an existing spur at the intersection of the Yampa River and U.S. Highway 40 on the east end of The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch, building a conveyor from an existing rail siding at The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch to move coal across the highway into the plant, using a spur at the Williams Ranch and extending it across U.S. 40 into the plant, building a conveyor from the Williams Ranch spur to move coal across the highway, and using a spur near Hayden Gulch to haul coal to an unloading facility for either trucking or conveying the coal the final stretch into the plant.

Speaking on the company's right to use eminent domain, Xcel Technical Specialist at Hayden Station Glenn Jones said, "We don't want to resort to that."

For Xcel to use eminent domain, a court must decide that the company is using the most viable option.

"You don't just walk in and say, 'I want that piece of ground' if there are other alternatives," Jones said. "You must prove from the cost standpoint or other standpoints that it is the best option. I'm sure I speak for everybody when I say we don't want to go there. We'd like to steer clear of that."

Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said eminent domain is "a process we resist using."

"We'd much rather try to build some acceptance," Stutz said. "It's a process we'd try not to exercise if we don't have to."

Bell said she does not understand why Xcel would consider building a railroad on her property, her neighbor's property or The Nature Conservancy.

"It is to get people riled up or what?" Bell asked.

Stutz said Xcel wants to avoid assuming some options are worse than others and wants to keep all possibilities open.

If Xcel did use eminent domain to construct a rail spur on the Bell and Williams ranches, Bell said she probably would leave.

"I think there's no way I would continue living there if they put a rail there," Bell said, "but I don't even know what we would do. It would totally ruin the value of our property. It's prime location by the river."

Xcel has not begun studying economic factors, which will be part of the decision-making process. The focus now is on gauging public opinion. Eighty-two people attended a public meeting held Jan. 14 at Carpenter Ranch, which Stutz said was a "very good turnout."

"We have incredible data to go on, and we learned some things about historical significance we didn't know going in that we will weigh into the overall site selection," Stutz said.

The coal-hauling alternatives that would directly affect property owners on or around the Carpenter Ranch and Williams Ranch were those of most concern, Stutz said.

"Public opinion will weight heavy," Jones said. "We have to ask if we want a black eye, but the decision goes beyond the local level. This is a national corporation, and the big guns will be part of the decision-making."

-- To reach Nick Foster call 871-4204

or e-mail nfoster@steamboatpilot.com

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