Aspen city officials at one point assumed a proposed hydroelectric plant using water from Castle and Maroon creeks would be operational by 2012.
Instead, the year saw the project beat down by a dedicated and well-funded opposition, which won a narrow victory at the polls in one of the biggest local political battles in recent history.
The 1.17-megawatt hydro plant, which would generate around 5 million kilowatt hours per year or 8 percent of the city utility’s electric load, was already under fire from streamside property owners who claimed in a 2011 lawsuit that the city’s water rights for hydropower had been abandoned.
The plaintiffs included two billionaires — Bill Koch and Kit Goldsbury — and Aspen locals with a history of successfully taking on local governments.
The city also underestimated construction costs related to a long pipeline that had already been installed to serve the plant, and other project costs, causing the budget to balloon from $6.2 million in 2007 to $10.5 million today. Nearly $7 million has already been spent on project components, including a $1.4 million turbine sitting in storage on city property.
The opponents opened up a new front in the war against the hydro plant a year ago, when City Council passed a land-use approval and zoning change for the power station’s building, which would be under the Castle Creek Bridge.
Aspen residents Maurice Emmer and Ward Hauenstein took out a petition and collected over 950 signatures, requiring council to either rescind the zoning ordinance or put it up for a referendum. Council decided that instead of a spring special election on a technical land-use issue, an advisory vote on the project as a whole in November would be better, and rescinded the ordinance.
The signature-gathering campaign also saw the introduction of anonymous money into the hydro political debate, with thousands of dollars of full-page ads taken out in both local newspapers urging people to put their names to the petition.
The ads were purchased by a nonprofit organization — Saving Our Streams — that formed in response to the hydro plant proposal, but the group used its nonprofit status to claim it did not have to play by normal campaign finance rules that require political issue committees to report contributions and expenditures.
Meanwhile, the city continued through the process of applying for a license for the plant from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which sent two representatives to Aspen in April to hold community meetings about the project and the FERC’s role. The representatives said they normally wouldn’t make the trek for a small project but that the debate had become heated enough to attract their attention.
In August, City Council approved language for the advisory question, which is not legally binding on the municipal government, and asked if voters would like the city to complete the project and “replace coal-fired generation with renewable energy.”
By mid-September, the campaign was in full swing, and more anonymous money was flying around. Another purported nonprofit “social welfare organization” showed up, calling itself Aspen Citizens Committee. This group inundated voters’ mailboxes with glossy fliers criticizing the project and flooded the radio airwaves with ads, but no one ever came forward publicly to take responsibility for the material, which wasn’t exactly subtle, and included images of dead fish.
When the city asked the group to register as an issue committee and file campaign finance report, the response was familiar: A Denver attorney wrote back, saying disclosure was not needed for the group, since it was merely there to “educate” residents, and besides, the vote is advisory, so it doesn’t matter anyway.
On election day, the hydro plant came out on the losing end of a close vote — 2,063 to 1,956, or 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.
Whether the loss at the polls really spells the end of the project, or merely a retrenching for those in favor of hydropower, remains to be seen.