Commissioner Lathen Explains Why She Voted to Approve Power Line Re-Zone

Before and after: what the proposed power lines would look like.
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11 News is getting answers about why El Paso County commissioners voted to allow high voltage power lines to run above ground in eastern El Paso County.

This has been controversial from the start. NextEra Energy got approval to run lines underground for their wind farm back in December of 2013. Then a few months ago they asked commissioners to put a four-mile section of them above ground. That's the part that angered so many homeowners.

11 News talked with El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen. This is her district. We asked her even with all those strong objections why she still voted yes. She said if commissioners didn’t approve the re-zone, NextEra threatened to cancel the whole project.

"Hey guys, we want you to go ahead and keep this original agreement. They said if we did, the project would not go forward,” explained Lathen.

If NextEra stopped the project, Lathen says they could then turn around and sue the county.

“If we just decided we just don't want you to develop somewhere because we don't like it, that's considered arbitrary and capricious under the law. Any applicant, whether it's a large company like this, or a small developer or a land owner, can file suit,” said Lathen.

Construction is set to start in March. NextEra plans to have the wind farm fully operational by the end of the year.

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A heated battle over aboveground power lines went well past midnight Friday, finally ending with an unanimous vote in favor of the proposal.

El Paso County commissioners and dozens of homeowners wrangled for almost 15 hours over the issue.

At the center of the fight: proposed changes to a wind farm project in El Paso County. Project managers say those changes--putting a four-mile stretch of power lines above ground instead of below--will be less costly and easier to repair. Residents living along the route where the power lines will be placed say they'll not only be an eyesore, but also severely hurt the value of their homes.

The fight between residents and commissioners was intense at times, with four residents nearly getting kicked out of the board meeting shortly before midnight. In the end, despite passionate pleas from the homeowners, county commissioners voted 4-0 in favor of the proposal. Commissioner Sallie Clark was not at the meeting.

Several homeowners stormed out of the meeting while shouting at commissioners after the vote.

Project background

Back in December of 2013 El Paso County commissioners approved a proposal for the Golden West Wind Energy Project, a wind farm in northeastern El Paso County.

Days later, Florida based Nextera Energy--the nation's largest producer of renewable energy--bought the wind farm from Fowler Wind Energy.

The wind farm would span 30,000 acres around Calhan and Falcon, and could have as many as 145 wind turbines.

The approved project route originally went along Highway 24 and once it got near the Meadow Lake Airport, the power lines were supposed to go underground.

Then Nextera proposed re-zoning part of the project, putting a four-mile section of 112-foot-tall power lines above ground, right in front of homes.

The arguments

At Thursday's hearing over the proposal, Nextera argued that there are no negative effects of power lines related to property values. Their project manager told 11 News that running power lines above ground will be less costly and easier to repair than underground lines.

Angry homeowners countered that Nextera employees won't be the ones living with the power lines.

“They don't have the right to impose their will on me and have to live with something that's going to change my livelihood and that's going to take away what we live here for, a big part is our scenery,” Falcon resident Jay Kennedy said.

Other residents echoed Kennedy's concern that the power lines would block their view of Pikes Peak.

Kennedy's neighbor worried no one would want to buy a home sitting next to power lines.

"A lot of studies show a 10 to 15 percent decrease in property value," Laura Foye said. "I'm going to say no one is going to volunteer to live next to them. The property tends to sit on the market for longer: three, six, nine months longer."

County commissioners' stance

Commissioner Dennis Hisey said he sympathized with the homeowners' concerns, and was conflicted due to the potential devaluation of homes. He said his vote in favor of the power lines ultimately hinged on his belief that homeowners would only be affected in the short term.

Commissioner Peggy Littleton compared the installation of the power lines to putting up a 7-Eleven near homes; that property owners' rights end at the property line.

Commissioner Darryl Glenn said he supported the above ground lines, and didn't believe the homeowners' stance would hold up in court.

Commissioner Amy Lathen, who is assigned to the district affected by the project, told 11 News prior to Thursday's meeting that she was concerned about how close the proposed lines could be to homes.

"I really pushed in our last hearing for a half mile set back at the very minimum. There is an impact with there is no question about it."

What happens next

Nextera plans to start construction in March.