A small group of Elbert County residents met at the Dairy Queen in Elizabeth after a recent Xcel Energy community meeting. They morosely discussed how a friend’s expansive view could soon be permanently marred by new power lines running through Elbert County.
The community meeting, held at the Elbert County Fairgrounds, had been packed, with just under 300 people in attendance.
The Oct. 18 meeting focused on Xcel Energy’s Colorado Power Pathway, a billion-dollar project to improve the state’s electric grid and enable future renewable energy development along the pathway. The system will span more than a dozen counties, primarily in eastern Colorado.
It includes four new substations and approximately 550 to 610 miles of new transmission line. The pathway will be built in five segments. Segments 2 and 3 are already under construction and Segment 5, which is planned to run through Elbert County, isn’t slated to be completed until 2027.
Xcel held community meetings to fulfill Elbert County’s 1041 regulations (the powers of local government to regulate some development activities, named for the 1974 Colorado House Bill 1041) before the utility submits its formal permit application. Only people living within a quarter mile of the pathway are required to be notified of the meetings. The regulations further specify that one of the purposes of the meetings is to help applicants understand community concerns and adjust their application based on that input.
A community meeting on Oct. 10 in Simla was cut short because Xcel representatives felt threatened. About 75 people attended and brought up objections such as destruction of forested areas, lowering of land values and the inability to sell property in the future. Many attendees also brought signs illustrating their opposition.
Attendee Gary Austin explained that a man opposed to the pathway raised his voice to address the crowd; he proclaimed that the route had already been decided and there was no hope left. Some speculate a direct threat was made to one of the security guards. Whatever the case, in the end, Xcel representatives felt things were too rowdy. They excused themselves, called the Simla Police Department, and then ended the meeting entirely.
At the Oct. 18 meeting in Kiowa, Xcel added a Code of Conduct to help control the crowd. Residents at this meeting were more than willing to share their opinions about how they would be personally affected if the power pathway is built as proposed.
If built, the lines will go right behind Deb and Don Gray’s home. They’ve lived in Elbert County for almost 30 years. Deb says the easement would go through a swath of trees, some of them hundreds of years old.
Xcel will negotiate a one-time monetary compensation to landowners for a utility easement, giving the company the authority to use the land within a certain area. If an agreement can’t be reached with a landowner, Xcel will likely resort to the right of eminent domain and take the land anyway. Landowners near the power pathway, but without poles directly on their property, are not compensated in any way.
Don Gray is on the board of the Elbert County Environmental Alliance, a group of citizens committed to protecting their community by “minimizing the environmental and economic degradation from Segment 5 of Xcel’s Colorado Power Pathway within Elbert County.” Kerry Jiblits and Jill Adair comprise the rest of the board.
ECEA has helped inform the public, gather information and rally the community to attend meetings and make their voices heard. The ECEA says using eminent domain would be outrageous, when “Xcel can simply respond appropriately to the citizen input provided and plan the route further east in our county, paralleling existing power rights-of-way.”
Points in opposition
The reasons people oppose the pathway have common themes.
Linda Gonzalez said she came to the meeting to speak her truth. She believes the power pathway will make a “huge impact to the people who moved out here and their way of life.” She’s lived northeast of Kiowa for 17 years and drives over 100 miles a day to go to work — and she likes it that way. She wants the area to remain rural and is not optimistic about the growth that might come along with the pathway.
Andrew Lowry lives near Kiowa-Bennett Road and is concerned about the negative impact on housing prices, the increased risk of wildfires from downed transmission lines, and negative effects on wildlife. Lowry added that the proposed pathway is not far from Kiowa’s existing school and, if a new school ends up being built, would be even closer.
Some residents have more personal reasons to oppose the pathway.
Dustin Weland recently bought five acres east of Kiowa right off Highway 86. Xcel would like to impose a 150-foot easement through Weland’s front pasture. Weland’s front door is only 200 to 250 feet from the highway, so the easement would essentially cut his front yard in half. A “huge, 200-foot power pole would be planted right out my front door,” he said. The front pasture was the ideal spot to build a shop but now, if Xcel builds as planned, Weland won’t be able to build at all and Xcel will have unfettered access to his land.
Weland took some Wednesdays off from work to attend Board of County Commissioner (BOCC) meetings, to try to change the proposed route and spare his property. Weland said he “moved out here to get away from the city and now it’s coming to my front door.” He and his wife wanted to start a family in their new home but now have questions about how living so close to high voltage power lines may affect their health.
In a letter to the county commissioners, Gary Austin voiced his opposition. Austin is retired and just wants some peace and quiet. He fears that the pathway will negatively impact his family’s health, decimate his ability to sell his property, decrease his property value and negatively affect wildlife.
Initially, the route wasn’t anywhere near Austin’s ranch. Then, in February 2023, he was told not only had the route changed but that it would cut a 100- to 150-foot swath across his land, which would mean clear-cutting the forest.
“It took me 30 years of hard work to own this land free and clear and we don’t want a project taking power through our land and destroying the character of the land and my home value,” Austin said.
The ECEA points to a Wall Street Journal article to support concerns about property values. Researchers found that “vacant lots adjacent to high-voltage transmission lines sell for 45% less than equivalent lots not located near transmission lines. Non-adjacent lots still located within 1,000 feet of transmission lines sell at a discount of 18%.”
Stefan and Allison Tiefenbacher moved out near Kiowa five years ago to get away from urban sprawl. They wanted their children to have a rural upbringing. Allison expressed concern that the areas along the pathway will become filled with solar fields and wind farms.
“This is the rape of Elbert County,” she said. “I don’t want to drive down the roads and see a dystopian landscape.”
Xcel’s point of view
Heather Brickey, an Xcel representative, feels that the company went through a “pretty robust routing process.” The company began looking at potential routes in April 2021 and didn’t announce a route until December 2022. Brickey said the power pathway is necessary for improving reliability, increasing connectivity and expanding power load to the Front Range.
Xcel “looked at opportunities and constraints” along the proposed pathways. This includes considering land use, existing infrastructures, homes in the area, environmental features, and air space. After researching and talking with existing stakeholders, Xcel landed on the current route as the best option.
Many community members want the pathway to be moved farther east or for Xcel to consider burying the lines. The ECEA stated that “the citizens of Elbert County have asked Xcel to use the proposed route that would impact fewer property owners and have a lower impact on land devaluation, wildlife, forests, and view shed.”
When asked why a route farther east wasn’t chosen, Brickey said “a lot of factors” went into the decision but specifically mentioned conservation easements and the prohibitive constraints of some land use.
She added that when Xcel formally submits its permit application, the routing study will be available to the public and anyone will be able to look at their rationale. Burying the lines seems to be cost-prohibitive.
Xcel representatives admitted that the power won’t benefit Elbert County directly but insisted that Elbert County could still benefit. They pointed out that the pathway could increase tax revenue for the county and boost the regional economy.
The pathway is also an open-access transmission line, which means that any provider can tie-in and purchase power from Xcel. Their hope is that, in the future, green energy solutions like wind and solar plants can connect to the pathway too.
Now that the community meetings are completed, Xcel will formally submit its application to Elbert County. The planning commission will make a recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners and the BOCC will hold at least one more public hearing before making a decision. Even if the Elbert County Commissioners were to deny Xcel’s 1041 permit, Xcel could appeal to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to override their decision.
To contact Xcel about the Power Pathway, visit coloradospowerpathway.com and fill out the Contact Us form at the bottom of the page. Community members can also email ColoradosPowerPathway@xcelenergy.com.
Contact information for the Elbert County commissioners can be found at elbertcounty-co.gov/256/Commissioners.
The Public Utilities Commission can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. The email should reference proceeding #21A-0096E. An online form is also available at tinyurl.com/elbertpuc.