County faces balancing act
Routt County Planning Commission prepares to review Xcel rail request
At the Carpenter Ranch northeast of Hayden, cattle wander on well-worn trails through the snow, eating hay harvested from fields that, in warmer months, host sand hill cranes, bobolinks and other birds.
Demonstrating the compatibility of agriculture and natural ecosystems is one mission of the ranch, owned by The Nature Conservancy.
Nature Conservancy officials, however, are worried those goals will be compromised by Xcel Energy’s plan to build a railroad spur across a portion of the ranch.
The company, which owns the Hayden Power Station, applied for a Routt County special-use permit in November to pursue the rail spur. The spur would be used to provide long-term coal supplies to the station, which will lose its main coal source when the Seneca Coal Co. near Hayden closes this year.
The Routt County Planning Commission will find itself in a difficult position Thursday, when it is scheduled to review Xcel’s permit application. The county and the Yampa Valley Land Trust jointly hold conservation easements intended permanently to protect the ranch from development.
“With any other special-use permits, the question is: Is this use appropriate at this site?” said Chad Phillips, assistant director of the Routt County Planning Department. “But at the same time, it’s my opinion … the county (officials) should ask themselves: Is this the best location because of the importance the county places on active agricultural operations and conservation easements?”
“It’s very rare the county has to ask (itself) that question,” he said.
‘Out of the box’ option
Xcel Energy has spent about two years exploring 11 options for coal delivery, most involving railroad spurs or unloading facilities and conveyor belts through private properties between the power plant and the Union Pacific main line east of Hayden.
Last fall, the company settled on a plan, known as “Option 2A,” that involves constructing a “wye” off the mainline railroad near the east end of the Carpenter Ranch. The spur would head south across an open meadow on the ranch and through Tim Nelson’s property before tunneling under U.S. 40.
The spur then would continue south across about 40 acres of Rosamond Garcia’s land, where it would follow an existing easement on land owned by the Public Service Co. of Colorado, an operating company of Xcel Energy.
Xcel officials say the plan is an “out of the box” alternative to Option 2, which would use an existing spur right-of-way on the Carpenter Ranch. A survey of landowners and residents who attended an Xcel open house a year ago pointed to Option 2 as their preferred plan.
The plan seemed to best address concerns about potential effects on agriculture, environment and property values. Option 2 did have problems, however.
First, Xcel estimated coal delivery by rail would require one train, 60 to 70 cars long, traveling across the highway twice a day, five days a week. That would cause significant traffic delays. The plan also would affect riparian areas along the river.
Option 2A would address those problems with a new spur and wye about 200 feet from the existing spur, out of the riparian area. The underpass would eliminate highway traffic concerns.
The company confirmed its decision to pursue 2A in a 34-page report outlining effects and possible mitigation for each of the 11 options.
“2A is the alternative with the most mitigable impacts,” Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz said.
But some, including Willis Carpenter, a Denver attorney whose family sold its historic ranch to The Nature Conservancy, sees the other options as “window dressing” for a plan Xcel established early on.
“I think they figured out in the beginning what was the best way to go and explored other opportunities to make it look like they considered everything,” Carpenter said.
Protecting a legacy
The Carpenter Ranch is about 1,000 acres and part of what once was 2,400 acres purchased by Farrington Carpenter in 1945.
About 17 years later, the Colorado Ute Electric Association, which operated the Hayden Power Station at the time, used its powers of condemnation to force Carpenter to sell the land where the station now sits.
“I mention that because the ranch has already contributed largely to the plant,” Willis Carpenter said.
In 1996, about 15 years after Farrington Carpenter died, the Carpenter family sold the ranch to The Nature Conservancy, which raised more than $1 million in donations to purchase the ranch. More than 1,500 individuals and public entities contributed to the campaign.
“I consider us very fortunate to find a buyer who has preserved the agriculture aspects and has added to the community values of the property,” Willis Carpenter said.
The drive to raise funds for the ranch came in part from the high-quality habitat on the property. The ranch contains a globally rare mix of narrow leaf cottonwoods, box elders and red osier dogwood on the banks of the Yampa River.
“Where they occur together is just a really rich habitat for birds,” said Ann Oliver, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Yampa River Project.
Cottonwoods on the ranch host bald eagles, and the meadows are significant staging areas or resting spots for migrating sand hill cranes.
In addition to its listing as an “Important Bird Area” by the Audubon Society, the Carpenter Ranch is listed with local, state and national historical societies.
Xcel officials say the proposed wye and spur will affect about 8 acres of the ranch, mainly an irrigated hay field.
“It’s not just impacts on the land, it’s the fragmentation of the ranch,” Oliver said, stressing that the spur will disrupt bird habitat as well as irrigation.
But Michael Diehl, Xcel’s principal siting and land rights agent, said the company could implement a new and improved irrigation system.
“That’s just one example of something we’ve proposed that we don’t have to do, but we’re willing to do to improve irrigation on the ranch,” he said.
Xcel maintains that most, if not all, effects of the rail can be mitigated with measures that include safety provisions for people, livestock and wildlife and possibly exchanging affected ranch property with cropland just south of the highway.
“We’ve suggested mitigation for every point we can see,” Stutz said.
Proposed mitigation, however, will not protect the ranch’s ultimate conservation goals, Oliver said.
“This land is what we’ve promised to protect,” Oliver said. “This land is what is protected by conservation easements.”
“It’s hard to see how you can mitigate the loss of historical integrity and the loss of an open working ranch,” she said.
Nature Conservancy officials are not the only landowners upset by the plan.
Tim Nelson purchased his five acres bordering the ranch about four years ago because the property was private and near the river.
“I never found a place where I wanted to settle down until then,” he said.
Diehl said the proposed spur would be on part of Nelson’s property and would come within several hundred yards of his home.
Nelson said that number is more like 80 yards.
Xcel has offered to improve Nelson’s home to minimize noise and other effects of passing trains. The company also has proposed paying fair market value for Nelson’s property, he said.
But fair market value doesn’t compensate for being uprooted from what Nelson considered a comfortable long-term home.
“That’s my home,” Nelson said. “I don’t have another place to go. … Now, there might be a train running through it.”
Nelson also questions whether the community’s input on various coal delivery proposals was mostly from other landowners who supported Option 2A more than other plans that would have put the railroad closer to them.
Ultimately, Nelson wonders whether technology might provide other options Xcel hasn’t explored.
“There’s got to be a way besides trains and conveyor belts,” Nelson said. “We are way beyond that.”
Rosamond Garcia, who is Farrington Carpenter’s daughter and owns a portion of the original ranch, also has expressed her opposition to the plan, which would affect about five acres of her property.
Finding a solution
Construction Option 2A, estimated between $19 million and $22 million, would need to be complete and in operation before 2008 to meet the Hayden Station’s long-term coal needs — about 1.8 million tons a year, Diehl said.
Peabody Energy, which owns the Seneca mine, has been renegotiating a contract with Xcel to provide coal to the station through 2011. Stutz said the two companies are close to signing a contract through 2007.
However, the contract largely will depend on another special-use application going before the Planning Commission on Thursday. Peabody Energy, which submitted the application, wants permission to unload coal delivered by rail to its Hayden Gulch Terminal, southeast of Hayden. The coal would be delivered to the station on an existing haul road.
Xcel considered the Hayden Gulch Terminal as a possible long-term solution involving the haul road or a conveyor belt. The effects of those alternatives on private properties, nearby developments and roads made it unreasonable in the long term, Diehl said.
As a public utility, Xcel can exercise the power of eminent domain, in which it can force the sale of land from an unwilling seller. That power, however, is contingent on whether the county approves a special-use permit.
“It’s county staff’s opinion that their powers are not above ours,” Phillips said. “So basically, we could veto any condemnation on public property.”
If the company receives a special-use permit, preventing Xcel from pursuing its plan would be very difficult, Willis Carpenter said.
“If you’re given the power of eminent domain in the statutes, then you have the right to condemn, and you can pretty much pick the route you want,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to stop it in court.”
If Routt County denies the permit, however, the Carpenter Ranch may be even more vulnerable to a rail spur.
Finding a long-term solution for transporting coal to the station is critical not only to the 450,000 customers who receive electricity from the plant, but also to Xcel’s overall grid system, Stutz said.
“There’s going to be some type of solution. … Shutting down the plant is not an option,” said Stutz.
If a special-use permit for 2A is denied, Xcel likely will revisit option 2, where the company already owns the right to extend an existing spur.
The Routt County Planning Commission on Thursday may table the permit application, deny it or recommend the Board of County Commissioners’ approval.
Even if county commissioners decided to approve the application, Willis Carpenter contends the integrity of the Carpenter Ranch is so important that he would help others battle the plan in court.
“It’s not about the Carpenter family,” he said. “It’s about all those people who put $5 or $10 toward keeping this open space without railroads running through it.”
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