Xcel Energy plan sees concerns on health, property values in south Denver metro area

Plan to upgrade south metro power lines will remove some residents' trees, move sheds

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Some homeowners in Centennial recently learned that the trees in their own back yards could be removed — and there appears to be little to nothing they can do about it.

About 200 single-family homes sit within or adjacent to land where Xcel Energy has the right to make adjustments to its power line system for an upcoming project. In the process, some of those homes will have trees removed or trimmed — and roughly 50 sheds will need to be relocated due to construction access, Xcel says. Most of the residential properties that could be affected are in Centennial.

Xcel does not compensate property owners for the removal of trees, and landowners also will not be compensated for sheds that must be moved.

What's more, local governments don't have the authority to prevent the changes from happening.

The result has been an outpouring of concern from area residents — 115 people signed into a virtual meeting in January about the plan, known as the Greenwood to Denver Terminal Transmission Project. Xcel plans to upgrade roughly 15 miles of power lines in a path that crosses six municipalities: Centennial, Greenwood Village, Littleton, Englewood, Sheridan and Denver, according to Xcel's website.

The plan involves paths where Xcel already has the right-of-way to carry out a project, and the company will undertake construction in existing easements. That's a term that means a right to use someone else's land for a specified purpose — in this case, maintaining power lines.

One question in the January meeting read: “I just purchased our home in this area. Why was this not brought to our attention before we closed on this property?”

But by the nature of the plan, which was set in motion years ago, outreach to homeowners wasn't legally required. That's because Xcel didn't need land-use permits — a type of approval from local governments — to build on the land, where the existing right-of-way has been present since 1953.

That information hasn't brought much solace to local homeowners, who have expressed concerns about their property values, along with noise and health issues from the electromagnetic fields given off by the power lines, noted Leslie Hanks, a 70-year-old Centennial resident.

Hanks, who said she's a cancer survivor, stood at a meeting with Xcel representatives at a park on April 24 in west Centennial, holding a sign that read, "Affected home owners last to know.” Residents of neighborhoods in the Centennial area wrote a letter of concerns dated April 12 and sent it to local government officials and local media outlets.

“Perhaps if these radical changes were to affect the properties of our elected officials, the approach, and entire scope of the planning and project would be much, much different,” the letter read.

In a statement, the City of Centennial said it “does not have the authority to interfere in the private contracts and prevent Xcel from trimming or removing vegetation (plants) in the easement.” It also said the city is preempted by federal law from regulating electromagnetic field exposure, adding that the Colorado Public Utilities Commission — a state body — oversees such regulations.

Colorado Community Media spoke to local officials, Xcel and some experts about the effect the plan will have on trees and sheds, and what it could mean for property values and health.

Outreach timing irks some

A main sticking point for residents has been finding out about the plan late in the process. Xcel expects to begin construction in summer 2021.

In August 2018, the state Public Utilities Commission approved Xcel Energy's Colorado Energy Plan, which the company calls its “roadmap” to developing a cleaner energy mix and reducing carbon emissions in Colorado. That plan includes the Greenwood to Denver project.

The state commission gave a certain type of approval to the Greenwood to Denver project — a “certificate of public convenience and necessity” — in September 2020, according to Xcel.

But the first notice Xcel gave to property owners near the northern parts of the project path — segments 3, 4 and 5, which include Sheridan and Denver — was a postcard mailed to them about a virtual meeting, sent in late September 2020. 

The first notice given to property owners and homeowners in the south — near segments 1 and 2, which include Centennial, Greenwood Village, Littleton and Englewood — was a postcard mailed to them about another virtual meeting about the project, sent in early January 2021.

In early January, Xcel also mailed a separate “landowner notification letter” to properties that are within Xcel's easement or adjacent to the easement. 

“We planned on having open houses (the meetings) earlier, but the pandemic delayed this,” Larry Claxton, an Xcel official with the project, said in response to a question from the January virtual meeting. “We wanted to make sure the engineering required and potential impacts were understood before the open house to be able to answer as many questions as possible.”

Xcel says it started meeting with jurisdictions in the fall 2019. The company met with City of Centennial officials in October and December 2019 and again in late 2020, according to a statement from Allison Wittern, city spokeswoman.

Xcel plans to upgrade its existing 115 kV, or kilovolt, transmission power lines, to 230 kV. Xcel says it's undertaking the project in part to avoid potential overload of the metro Denver power system as it brings in new wind power and new solar power, according to the Xcel project's website.

Xcel officials said the company has upgraded other lines from 115 kV to 230 kV, and “it`s not uncommon,” Claxton told Colorado Community Media.

The existing utility line was built in 1953, generally prior to development in what's now Centennial, Claxton said.

Trees and sheds

Xcel gathered data on about 1,100 trees and shrubs in the right-of-way and determined that about 20% of those plants will need to be removed before construction. The company estimates pruning, or trimming, will be needed on another 25% of the plants.

The vast majority of those trees are in residential properties, Claxton said. Not all of the roughly 200 single-family homes along the path will have trees removed or trimmed.

In response to complaints from homeowners, Xcel revised its “vegetation management” plan, said Kelly Flenniken, Xcel's director of community relations.

“We did listen to customers who were reasonably upset about having to cut trees in the easement, and we looked at what trees might be able to stay,” Flenniken said. Some trees that Xcel said originally need to be removed can be trimmed instead as a result, she added.

After the recent change to the plant removal plan, Xcel has met with several homeowners.

“Someone from Xcel Energy will be in touch with every single property owner,” an official with Xcel said in response to a question in the January meeting. “There will be a conversation that will occur with every property owner around trees that are going to be removed or trimmed ... We will have a landscape architect who will potentially (note) some low-growing species of grasses or shrubs that will be compatible.”

Xcel also contacted Littleton Public Schools and South Suburban Parks and Recreation about whether any buildings would need to be removed. No buildings need to be removed regarding LPS or the parks district, but for construction purposes, Xcel says it needs to move some residential sheds in back yards.

“Xcel Energy will work with landowners to relocate the sheds elsewhere on their property if possible,” Flenniken said, but landowners will not be compensated.

The letter written by residents of Centennial-area neighborhoods said it “is important to note that the easements state that owners will be compensated for any damage to their properties.”

But Xcel, in a January meeting response, said: “Landowners typically are given a one-time payment based on fair market value for easement rights to their land, traditionally based on the appraised land value at the time the easement is purchased.”

Most of the residential properties along the path are in Centennial, and in Denver the path runs through mostly nonresidential areas. It's the same in Sheridan, Claxton said. In Englewood, the path runs largely through park property. In Littleton, it crosses the Littleton High School land and then the rest is primarily park or business areas, Claxton said.

In Greenwood Village, there are a handful of residences the path runs near, and it goes through an equestrian park.

Home values likely not in danger

Mike Papantonakis, chair of the board of directors for the Denver Metro Association of Realtors, can sympathize with homeowners' concerns about property values. But he says the impact might not be as serious as some fear.

“There's a pretty big easement in my backyard that the utility company could access,” said Papantonakis, who is a practicing Realtor with Remax Alliance in Arvada. “That's a very common thing for any neighborhood in the metro area to have easements for utilities.”

Papantonakis doesn't see any aspect of the plan that would “drastically affect home values at all, if any,” he said. Any time a homeowner removes a “great big” tree from the back yard, it can affect the appearance and the perceived value could be affected in a “very minor way,” he continued.

But asked if property values could drop 5% or up to 15% — as one comment in the January meeting feared — Papantonakis said: “No, I don't think so at all.”

If a neighborhood had no overhead power lines, and Xcel wanted to add some, “that would be a different story,” Papantonakis said. “But in my opinion, they're taking down the ones that could cause your property values to go down and replacing it with something much less scary and much less obtrusive with the pole.”

The current lines are on structures that “look like windmills,” and those are the types of electrical lines that people can shy away from in a way that can affect the real estate value, he added. That effect may be due to fears of health hazards, whether the fears are founded or not, Papantonakis said.

Moving or losing a shed, such as a standard tool shed, wouldn't likely drop a home's value either, he continued.

There will be more noise from lines as a result of the project because the current lines are de-energized, said Claxton, the Xcel official, but the plan meets all the requirements by the state.

An analysis conducted for this project determined the noise level 25 feet beyond the power line right-of-way would range from 20 dB(A) — a type of decibel measurement — in fair weather to 50 dB(A) in wet or rainy conditions, which falls at or within the levels deemed reasonable by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission: 50 to 75 dB(A). That's according to an Xcel response to a comment at the January meeting.

It's difficult to say what that noise could do to property values without hearing it, Papantonakis said.

“How much buzzing do you get? If I get out of my car to look at the house and I hear the buzzing right away, I'd say that's too much,” he said, adding that “it's all relative.”

To contact Xcel

For more information on the project and to sign up for email updates, see Xcel Energy's website here.

To contact Xcel about the project, call 303-294-2726 or email greenwooddenverterminal@xcelenergy.com.

To request a meeting with Xcel representatives, see here.

Reporter David Gilbert contributed to this story.

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