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Planning commission approves LPEA plan

La Plata Electric Association staff and consultants again approached the Archuleta County Planning Commission June 3 looking to gain a conditional use permit to move forward with a proposed Ponderosa electrical substation, this time addressing the substation’s visual mitigation.

The commission granted the request unanimous approval and sent it to the Board of County Commissioners for consideration.

LPEA presented its plan to the commission May 13 in its application for a conditional use permit, and the item was continued in order for LPEA to further address mitigation of the visual impact of the project.

Neighboring property owner to the south, Parelli Natural Horsemanship, approached the county and LPEA prior to the May 13 meeting, expressing concerns over the size and representation of the project as an expansion (no part of the existing structure will remain upon project completion), as well as the damage to the view from the Parelli Ranch, looking north.

At the June 3 meeting, LPEA staff engineer and project manager Jake Wills explained that, following the May 13 meeting, the company was left with two goals that would help please all parties — to increase the screening from the east and west approaches along U.S. 160, and to work with the adjacent landowner to design a plan for LPEA’s southern fence line that would appease the Parelli concerns.

According to Wills, a 15-foot earthen berm will be placed on the south side of the station, while a 12-foot berm will sit to the west of the station.

The height of the grading to the east of the substation will be increased to approximately 14 feet. More existing trees will be retained to the east of the proposed station.

A retaining wall will be built on the southern side of the site in order to support the berm, Wills said.

Randy Ferris, LPEA land rights administrator, clarified in an interview that the wall would be approximately 320 feet in length, though most of it would be covered by the berm to within a foot of the top. Only a portion of the full height of the retaining wall will be visible, Ferris said, where it is necessary to quickly build the grade to support the structure.

Wills said vegetation would be planted along the south, west and east sides of the substation, including atop the retaining wall.

Wills explained that any mitigation had to fit within the constraints set about by a number of agencies.

The National Electric Safety Code calls for a 20-foot separation from energized conductors; while the Rural Utilities Service demands a right-of-way clear of large vegetation; and the Colorado Department of Transportation has constraints on slope, disallows landscaping other than native grasses in the right-of-way, and does not allow negative impacts to the sight distance at the highway access point, Wills explained.

Wills then turned the presentation over to Brian Kimmel of Southwest Land Services, Inc., the project agent, to discuss the vegetation aspect of the mitigation.

Kimmel explained that the number-one challenge in landscaping a remote site (upon completion, the substation will be largely free of people) is how to get the vegetation to grow.

He also explained that height restrictions would affect the plants in some areas, such as those under power lines.

Evergreen trees will be used on the site to provide year-round buffering, Kimmel said, while other, mostly native shrubs up to 15 feet in height will be planted.

The plants will be placed in pockets with imported soil and maintained for one to two years, until the plants are established.

Wills said the mitigation aspects could add about 22 percent to the total project cost, taking it from just under $1.8 million to a little under $2.2 million, a difference of $399,425 (including $250,000 for the berms).

Concluding the presentation, acting commission chair Kirk England asked the county’s senior planner, Cindy Schultz, if staff had any concerns about the mitigation plan presented for the site.

“It’s a difficult project. It is a substation; it’s never going to be pretty, but, in terms of what they’ve done, they did a good job,” Schultz said, adding that the mitigation plan was the “most appealing, considering the alternatives.”

Commissioner Steve Van Horn agreed that the plan produced in the short amount of time was impressive. “I’m very pleased with it. If it turns out looking anything like this, I actually think it’ll look better than what’s there right now.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting Mark Weiler, president of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, noted that while the option was the best yet, the project was less than ideal.

“Now, today, what you have is the best option on a bad project,” Weiler said. “I liken this to putting Chanel No. 5 on a pig. It might be a good-smelling pig, but, at the end of the day, it’s still a pig. This is the wrong project, in the wrong place, period.”

Weiler continued, saying that the plan did not mitigate all of the damage to the viewshed, and that the substation should be relocated to the Cloman Industrial Park, which is zoned for light industrial versus agricultural.

Weiler further noted his and the company’s dislike for the solution, saying, “This is the best we can make out of a bad situation, but it’s not the best we can do.”

While voicing his opinion, England said he was not impressed with the wall, explaining that he believes it will draw attention, but said he could not foresee recommending to the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners that the substation be moved to an alternate site, due to the cost of such a move.

Lynda Carter agreed with Weiler’s assessment that better planning years ago would have prevented the problem produced by an industrial site being located in an agricultural area, and noted her hope that the planning commission would have an eye to the future when approving CUPs.

“If that had been thought through in the beginning, perhaps we wouldn’t be here today,” Carter said.

According to the CUP application narrative filed with the county planning department, the new, upgraded substation would be built slightly west of the existing substation and be located on the same site.

According to Wills, 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.

The new substation will be roughly 230 feet by 260 feet in terms of its physical footprint, said Wills. Ron Meier, LPEA manager of engineering, said the new substation would “basically utilize the entire parcel of land” owned by LPEA.

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.

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

The request for a CUP for the substation will likely be considered by the Board of County Commissions at their July 6 regular meeting.