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BoCC postpones substation decision

After multiple presentations to the Archuleta County Planning Commission, La Plata Electric Association staff and consultants went before the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday looking to obtain a conditional use permit and move forward with a proposed upgrade to the Ponderosa electrical substation, but will again have to wait following the continuation of the item to the Aug. 3 BoCC meeting.

After presentations on May 13 and June 10, the planning commission granted the request unanimous approval and sent it to the Board of County Commissioners for consideration.

Explaining the project to the BoCC, Archuleta County Senior Planner Cindy Schultz noted that electrical substations are allowed in any zoning category with a CUP (the LPEA land is zoned agricultural ranching).

Schultz also informed the BoCC that, since a number of modifications have been made to the application due to mitigation concerns, more are possible, such as a height variance request that is scheduled to be on the July 20 BoCC agenda concerning the project.

The variance, proposed to be 7 feet 10 inches, would allow a lightning rod to reach a total height of 47 feet, 10 inches from the base of the structure to the top of the rod. Overall, the structure will be recessed into the ground through grading.

Schultz then informed the commissioners that LPEA must comply with a number of conditions for the CUP.

With little discussion, Commissioner Bob Moomaw made a motion that was seconded by Commissioner John Ranson to allow discussion, which Chair Clifford Lucero noted would be separated into those for and those against the project.

“I just want to find out what the effects on the county are if this does not go in. What benefit are we going to get from this?” asked resident Teri Frazier.

“The benefit to the county is increased reliability of the electrical system. The substation that we have now is 36 years old and is made out of wooden poles, basically, that are rotting ... if the substation were to fail, it would be a large outage in the county,” said Jake Wills, LPEA engineer and project manager.

“And what’s the downside? Is there any other place to put it?” Frazier asked.

“For a large cost, yes, we could move it,” Wills said.

“If this is going to provide a more reliable electrical system for the county, it’s certainly needed,” Frazier said.

Neighboring property owner to the south, Parelli Natural Horsemanship, approached the county and LPEA prior to the May 13 meeting and has spoken out at every step of the process, 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.

Tuesday was no different, with almost 30 Parelli employees packing the BoCC meeting room, complete with two video cameras to record the meeting.

Similar to his previous comments, Mark Weiler, president of Parelli, stated that the project was not an upgrade, but was in fact a new structure, 39 times the size of the current structure, and said that the project fails to meet Land Use and Development Code criteria.

Weiler also called into question a claim during the application process from LPEA of increased growth demanding increased electricity, calling the claim “highly suspect.”

“We have too many examples of short-sided thinking by previous county commissioners that have allowed projects to be built and that they have become eyesores and a blight on our community,” Weiler said.

Weiler continued, saying that, when the community is worried about its economic status, the natural beauty that attracts visitors needs to be remembered.

“There’s more natural beauty here than anybody could create. We should not put our industrial complexes in our front yard. They should be in areas that are less desirable.” Weiler said.

Weiler said that LPEA had been victims of “very bad leadership” via the planning department, and encouraged out-of-the-box thinking, asking the BoCC to not compound problems by granting the CUP.

With that, Moomaw asked if the Ponderosa substation was the main substation in the county, to which Wills said it was one of two, the other being owned by Tri-State. It was also determined that two more substations are planned.

Moomaw urged LPEA to work with the county to determine a better site for future substations, stating that he was not happy with “the best of a bad situation.”

He noted that he was under the impression that there was an agreement on mitigation with Parelli, which didn’t appear to be the case.

“I think there’s a better solution. It probably will cost more money, but I think this community deserves that and I think LPEA has the reputation in this community that it is a team player,” Moomaw said.

Later in discussions, it was divulged that the substation had been in the workplan for five-to-seven years, and had been worked on for about a year and a half. Wills said the useful life of a substation is 30 years, and that LPEA was building 30 years out.

Ranson asked Weiler if their mitigation concerns had been changed, to which Weiler responded that they hadn’t, pointing out an 85-foot driveway that wouldn’t block the structure and again urging the BoCC to deny the request.

After a question from Ranson, Wills noted that equipment had been ordered, but not fully paid for, to keep on LPEA’s internal timeline.

After a break, the BoCC decided to seek more legal advice on the topic, opting to continue the item to the Aug. 3 meeting.

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 parcel is 3.12 acres.

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.

At previous meetings, LPEA staff said 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 said the mitigation aspects 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).