Public comments regarding Xcel Energy's special-use permit application for a coal supply rail spur to Hayden Station are due Thursday to the Routt County Planning Department, 136 Sixth St., P.O. Box 773749.
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Steamboat Springs Anyone with an opinion on Xcel Energy's controversial application for a coal supply rail spur to Hayden Station has until Thursday to submit comments to the Routt County Planning Department.
On Sept. 6, the county Planning Commission will hold a hearing on Xcel's special-use permit for the rail line. Planning Director Chad Phillips said few comments have been received.
"We've only got a couple in so far, which is scary," Phillips said. "Hopefully, we'll get a few more."
Phillips said the comments he has received oppose the rail spur or request that the project be reconsidered. The line would extend from the east end of the Carpenter Ranch southeast to the coal-fired Hayden Station power plant. A new overpass would be built to bring the line across U.S. Highway 40 about 200 yards west of where the highway crosses the Yampa River. Approximately 10,500 feet of rail would be constructed in addition to an at-grade crossing on Routt County Road 27.
The rail line would traverse the Nature Conservancy-owned Carpenter Ranch on an existing right-of-way controlled by Xcel. The Routt County Board of Commissioners rejected a previous proposal that would have traveled over a conservation easement on Carpenter Ranch because that easement prevents industrial developments.
Betsy Blakeslee, Carpenter Ranch outreach manager, said the Nature Conservancy is "vehemently opposed" to the rail spur, which will include two 3,000-foot retaining walls across the ranch.
"It flies in the face of everything we have raised millions of dollars to do," Blakeslee said.
Michael Diehl, siting and land rights supervisor for Xcel, said the rail spur is needed "to supply a reliable source of fuel to Hayden Station in the future."
Most of Hayden Station's coal is shipped via trucks from Peabody Energy's Twentymile Coal Mine. That mine is expected to dry up by 2011, and Diehl said Xcel hopes to use the rail spur to deliver coal from other mines to the west.
"If we don't have a rail spur, it will involve having a large number of trucks on public roads, which is not preferable, and in adverse weather conditions, is not reliable," Diehl said.
Although Xcel is using its own right-of-way, Blakeslee said the project may still be illegal because of the aesthetic effect it would have on the ranch. Language in the ranch's conservation easement, controlled by Routt County and the Yampa Valley Land Trust, protects "the right of visual access to and view of the protected property in its open condition : for the scenic enjoyment of the general public."
"Our easement is excepted from the conservation easement," he said.
Phillips said he does not believe the rail spur as proposed would be illegal, and he said organizations such as Great Outdoors Colorado, the state Historical Society and the Division of Wildlife have indicated that their continued funding of the Carpenter Ranch would not be jeopardized by the rail line's construction.
According to the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society has designated the ranch as an important bird area and is one of the world's largest remaining examples of a rare riparian forest type dominated by narrowleaf cottonwood, box elder and red-osier dogwood. Blakeslee said the rail line would have an adverse affect on the ranch's ecosystem.
"If I were a bird, I think I would go elsewhere," Blakeslee said.
Blakeslee said there also are safety concerns that would result from the construction of the rail line. She said the ranch is an important migration corridor for deer and elk, which might be funneled toward U.S. Highway 40 as a result of the rail line and its retaining walls.
"There already is a lot of wildlife on Highway 40," Blakeslee said.
Diehl said Xcel has tried its best to mitigate all of the conservancy's concerns. In the case of keeping wildlife off the roads, he said the company intends to construct a combination of wildlife bridges and tunnels to allow for animals to cross the rail line safely.
Diehl said the existing proposal is the result of three years of work and the proposed route is not the company's preferred option, but the only one left after strenuous negotiations with the county, private landowners, state and federal organizations and others.
"We're left with this alternative after years of negotiating," Diehl said. "We've definitely exhausted our efforts."
Throughout those efforts, Blaskeslee said Xcel unfairly pitted private landowners against the Nature Conservancy. Other rail line options would have traversed private property.
"It was construed in meetings that if the Nature Conservancy doesn't suck this up, it's going to have to come across private land," Blakeslee said. "It's been a very ugly process, and we just don't appreciate that. It's been very divisive in our community."
Despite objections, the project is likely to keep moving forward toward a hearing with the Routt County Board of Commissioners at 6 p.m. Sept. 24 because of a statute that requires the application be approved or denied within 90 days of its submittal.
"The chances of it being tabled are slim," Phillips said.
Whether the project will move forward to the commissioners with a recommendation for approval or denial, however, Phillips said was too close to call.
Assuming the project hits no snags, Diehl said construction of the rail line would begin in the summer of 2008 and be completed in 2011.