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LPEA substation: Neighbors express concerns

A proposed new and upgraded La Plata substation adjacent to the existing Ponderosa electrical substation west of Pagosa Springs on U.S. 160 has the owners of one neighboring property crying foul.

The Conditional Use Permit application narrative filed with the Archuleta County Planning Department reveals the upgraded substation would be built slightly west of the existing substation.

According to Jake Wills, LPEA staff engineer and project manager, the new substation will double the existing 7 MVA (mega volt ampere) capacity to 14 MVA.

“Peak loading of the existing substation transformer has reached very close to the transformer’s capacity. This project will provide a higher capacity transformer to handle current, as well as future load growth ...,” the narrative states.

Wills said the existing substation serves the area from Harman Park south of Pinon Drive and the majority of western Archuleta County. The new substation would increase redundancy to other substations and will end up serving the Vista and Lake Forest areas.

“It’s going to drastically increase service and reliability to Archuleta County,” Wills said.

A budgeted cost for the project is $3 million, though, Wills said, at this point, the project is below budget.

Despite the projected increase in capacity and service area, Linda and Pat Parelli, as well as others involved with Parelli Natural Horsemanship’s Ranch on the south side of U.S. 160, are claiming more needs to be done to mitigate the sight impact of the substation from the highway.

Keith Newbold, of Shand, Newbold & Chapman, P.C., is representing the Parelli group in the matter.

“It’s immediately adjacent to the Parelli Ranch,” Newbold said. “The new substation will affect pretty much all of the ranch in terms of the view corridors back to the San Juan Mountains.”

Newbold said that, when Parelli acquired the property west of town, he put some land into a conservation easement, partly to protect the views back to the mountains.

The LPEA project was advertised in The SUN legal notices as a permit application to “reconstruct and upgrade their existing Ponderosa electrical substation.”

Newbold, however, said he thinks the description incorrectly represents the project and that it is, instead, a new substation between eight and nine times larger than the existing one.

Wills said the new substation will be roughly 230 feet by 260 feet in terms of its physical footprint.

Ron Meyer, LPEA manager of engineering, said the new substation would “basically utilize the entire parcel of land” owned by LPEA.

“I don’t think anyone can look at it and say it’s not going to be very large or obtrusive,” Newbold said, adding that it would, without question, also impact the views for those driving on U.S. 160.

In an effort to minimize the visual impact of the substation, Wills said LPEA will recess the grade eight feet, allowing for the station to sit lower behind the easement, and follow any other mitigation measures deemed appropriate by the county. Meyer echoed, noting that LPEA was working within the process established by the county.

The narrative notes that the proposed addition’s overall height is also slated to be 40 feet, versus the normal 60 feet, with the exception of mandatory lightning rods.

“The essential factor of this plan is the lowering of the overall profile of the site due to the re-grading for the proposed facility and reclamation of the site with native grasses,” the narrative states.

“There’s no question helping grade will help view somewhat,” Newbold said, adding that an alternative, if the visual impact could not be mitigated at the current site, would be to find an alternate location.

“We believe it’s going to take a series of both earthen berms and fences to shield that sufficiently,” Newbold said.

Meyer said a move to another site would dramatically increase the cost, with real estate purchases and rerouting the current power system through new power lines. Meyer also noted that the use of the site was established in the early 1970s with construction of the existing substation.

A move would also ask others to share the burden who currently don’t, Meyer said, a sentiment Archuleta County Senior Planner Cindy Schultz agrees with.

“Whose needs trump whose needs?” she said, adding that the department tries to make sure all concerns are met equally.

Schultz also noted that the department must follow state regulations for public utilities.

Still, Newbold is asking that more mitigation measures be incorporated into a CUP, but said attempts to meet with the county had been unsuccessful.

Shultz said the planning department had heard from one neighboring property owner who “came in with loaded guns, so to speak.”

When the department is contacted by an attorney, Schultz said, “That’s our cue to say, ‘your attorney can talk to our attorney’.”

Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr said after endeavoring to set up a meeting, one with Newbold was scheduled for Wednesday (yesterday) at 1:30 p.m.

“It’s a project that we need to get done to keep the lights on,” Meyer said.

Newbold also approached the Pagosa Springs Town Council at their Tuesday evening meeting, asking for the council’s support in making sure due consideration is made concerning sight-impact mitigation (for more on the exchange, see related article).

The project will go before the Archuleta County Planning Commission at 6 p.m. May 13 in the commissioners’ meeting room at the county courthouse. That meeting will involve a staff presentation to the commission, a planning commission hearing and public comment. The planning commission will then vote to make a recommendation to the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners.

If approved, Meyer said construction for the project would be a six- to nine-month process.

randi@pagosasun.com