Rail spur nears next hurdle

Planning commissioners to consider Xcel's application tonight

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If you go

What: Xcel Energy's hearing with the Routt County Board of Commissioners regarding a special use permit for a coal supply rail spur to Hayden Station

When: 6 p.m. today

Where: Courthouse Annex, BCC Hearing Room, 136 Sixth St.

On the 'Net

View Xcel Energy's rail application at www.edaw.net/hayden. Enter "guest" for the username and password.

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Heidi Mitzelfeld, a seasonal employee of the Carpenter Ranch, walks through a pasture near where a proposed rail spur would be built on the ranch.

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Heidi Mitzelfeld, a seasonal employee at the Carpenter Ranch, stands in front of the area where a proposed rail spur will cut across the ranch. Heidi is concerned that some of the older trees that line the aging spur will be cut down to make room for grading that will make the train overpass possible.

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Heidi Mitzelfeld, a season employee of the Carpenter Ranch, sits on a log near where a proposed rail spur will be built on the ranch.

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Heidi Mitzelfeld, a seasonal employee at the Carpenter Ranch, points out where a proposed rail spur would cross U.S. Highway 40. The wall needed to raise the track above the highway would cut across the eastern part of the ranch.

— After receiving hesitant approval from the Routt County Planning Commission, Xcel Energy is approaching its potentially final hurdle in receiving county approval for a proposed rail spur east of Hayden. The project has been in the works for four years.

The Planning Commission voted, 6-1, on Sept. 6 to move Xcel's special use permit application forward to the Routt County Board of Commissioners with a recommendation for approval. The commissioners will consider the application at 6 p.m. today.

The controversial rail spur, if approved, would extend from the Union Pacific mainline to the Hayden Station power plant and traverse a far eastern section of the Nature Conservancy-owned Carpenter Ranch along a right-of-way owned by Xcel. As currently proposed, the rail spur would include an overpass across U.S. Highway 40 and an at-grade crossing of Routt County Road 27. A 3,000-foot-long retaining wall would be required on either side of the U.S. 40 overpass. On the Carpenter Ranch, the wall would taper from a height of 6 feet to 27 feet for a length of 1,800 feet.

A separated-grade crossing of Routt County Road 27 was included as a condition of approval for the application but was removed at the Sept. 6 Planning Commission meeting. The removal of that condition led Planning Commissioner Fred Nichols to cast the lone "no" vote against the application, citing safety concerns.

Mary Brown, a lobbyist employed by Xcel, has noted that the Routt County Road 27 crossing does not come close to meeting the Public Utility Commission's conditions for a separated-grade crossing, which are based on the number of car trips multiplied by the number of trains. As such, Brown said Xcel is unwilling to shoulder the financial burden of an additional overpass.

"Xcel would be happy to construct the grade-separated crossing, but not at its sole expense," Brown said.

The Nature Conservancy has many concerns with the rail spur, including its potential to funnel wildlife onto U.S. Highway 40. It outlined its concerns in a letter to Xcel and the Planning Department. Xcel responded with a mitigation plan addressing many of the concerns, which included items such as a series of wildlife underpasses to allow for the safe passage of large game. The mitigation measures, however, are not yet conditions of the application's approval.

Xcel officials have said the company needs a rail spur to guarantee reliable fuel delivery to Hayden Station. Coal currently is shipped to the power plant via trucks on Routt County Road 27 from the Twentymile Coal Mine. Xcel's contract with Twentymile Coal Co. expires in 2011.

The company says its current proposal is the only option left after an exhaustive process. The Routt County Board of Commissioners rejected a previous application that crossed the Nature Conservancy at a different location because it violated the conditions of the ranch's conservation easement, which is jointly controlled by the county and the Yampa Valley Land Trust.

Nature Conservancy officials have contended that Xcel's current application still violates that conservation easement - even though the company is using its own existing right-of-way - due to language in the easement protecting visual access. That argument would have to be advanced in the courts, however, because the county has decided it will not consider it.

Other options for the rail spur, including a consultant-recommended one, were rejected because they crossed private property without willing landowners.

Many of the six planning commissioners who voted in favor of Xcel's proposal suggested they were doing so grudgingly, furthering the sentiment that there aren't any other options. Planning Commissioner Wayne Adamo said he doesn't like the proposal, but couldn't vote against it because he believes in property rights and Xcel is using its own right-of-way.

It was standing room only in the commissioners hearing room when the rail spur application went before the Planning Commission. Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said the county commissioners are expecting the same tonight and have taken steps to provide more seating in the hearing room. Stahoviak, a strong voice in rejecting Xcel's first proposal, would not comment on her impressions of this one prior to the hearing.

She said she encourages anyone with concerns to attend the meeting, but requested people stick to the current application, as opposed to discussing things that have been presented in the past.

"We've been trying to find an application that sort of works for everyone," Stahoviak said. "I'm hoping we can come to some sort of conclusion by the end of the evening."

Geoff Blakeslee, Yampa Valley project manager for the Nature Conservancy, declined to comment Friday, except to encourage other rail spur opponents to make their opinions known and not rely on the conservancy to fight the battle alone.

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