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LPEA obtains variance for substation height

The proposed La Plata Electric Association Ponderosa electrical substation was again the topic of discussion at an Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners’ meeting, this time with a request by LPEA for a height variance to accommodate substation equipment.

LPEA is also seeking approval of a Conditional Use Permit for the substation, but the CUP decision was continued from the July 6 meeting until the Aug. 3 BoCC meeting in order for the BoCC to obtain legal advice on the matter.

Anticipating a decision on the CUP before Tuesday’s BoCC meeting, LPEA and the Archuleta County Planning Department noticed and brought forward the height variance request.

In presenting the request, Senior Planner Cindy Schultz said, while building heights are limited to 40 feet, nothing in the county regulations specifically addresses additional structures such as antennas and cell phone towers.

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

The rod at the existing Ponderosa substation reaches to 35 feet above the ground.

The rods will include a 10-foot static mast and 2-foot, 10-inch ionizer balls.

With public comment opened to project proponents first, Ronnie Zaday spoke in favor of the height variance, citing the added safety of the lightning rod and the added reliability and needed improvement to the power system.

Randy Ferris, LPEA land rights administrator, spoke next, contesting criticism that LPEA had not met all requirements with project applications and reasons for the height variance.

Ferris also explained that, with grading taken into account, the new lightning rod would be 6.5 feet taller than the current rod and, with the proposed berm on the south side of the proposed substation complex, the perceived height of the tower would be just under 19 feet tall.

Next, the floor was opened to comment from project opponents.

Representatives of neighboring property owner to the south, Parelli Natural Horsemanship, approached the county and LPEA prior to the May 13 meeting and have 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 as Keith Newbold, of Shand, Newbold & Chapman, P.C., representing the Parelli business, Pat and Linda Parelli and Parelli President Mark Weiler spoke against the variance. Weiler also spoke in opposition to the project and variance.

Newbold told the BoCC that it was not until he pointed out the need for a height variance that the process for it began, and that the planning department did not follow procedures for the variance.

In addition, Newbold alleged that the variance did not meet all the needed criteria for a number of reasons, including that of facing a hardship.

Newbold also noted that one tower does not appear to meet right-of-way requirements.

Weiler followed Newbold, informing the BoCC that Parelli had engaged an engineering firm to look at alternatives for the project and had offered property owned by Parelli for the substation.

Weiler contested that the approximate $400,000 proposed for view impact mitigation should be spent on a parcel of land large enough for the substation. He suggested that the BoCC needed to ignore rhetoric and look at alternatives that would likely end up being more cost effective.

“To try to fit a size twelve foot in a size eight shoe is going to cause pain and suffering forever — it’s not logical,” Weiler said.

Bob Hart, chair of the Town Tourism Committee, also spoke against the substation being located at the entrance to the community and urged looking at alternative sites.

Ferris’ request for a rebuttal period was denied following a statement from County Attorney Todd Starr that the room “reeks of litigation” and allowing a rebuttal was not advised.

Following a motion to approve the variance, Commissioner John Ranson said, “I think what we’re looking at today is a variance ... If my memory serves me correct, I think Parelli had to get a variance for the building that you built, so today we’re looking at a variance request and I believe it is reasonable. They do occur.”

Commissioner Bob Moomaw agreed, noting that a variance for the project would be required anywhere and that he felt all the conditions for the variance were met.

Likewise, Commissioner Clifford Lucero agreed, and the variance request was granted.

If it gains ultimate approval, the proposed substation “upgrade” would be built slightly west of the existing substation and be located on the same site.

The proposed substation would double the existing substation’s capacity and allow the substation to serve a greater area and serve with more redundancy.

The continuation of the project’s CUP application is scheduled for the Aug. 3 BoCC regular meeting.

randi@pagosasun.com