The Thornton Water Project got dealt another bad hand on May 5, when the Weld County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to deny Thornton’s application to build a water pipeline through 34 miles of unincorporated Weld County.
The denial means Thornton is looking up at a second steep hill to climb in its attempt to deliver highly coveted water from a Larimer County source in just a few years’ time, because the city is also struggling with the Larimer County Board of Commissioners over the pipeline’s other major section. To resolve the situation in Weld County, the city might consider doing what it did in Larimer County: legal action.
“Legal action of some sort is an option,” said Thornton spokesman Todd Barnes. “I think it’s fair to say Thornton disagrees with the criteria cited for the denial of the permit,” Barnes added.
Reasons cited by members of the Weld County Board of Commissioners was that the application was inconsistent with Weld County’s comprehensive plan, a new plan the board passed last year, and that the pipeline might affect future growth. Commissioner Scott James also said the project isn’t in the “best interest of the people of Weld County,” invoking a core debate in the past year about whether Thornton is being considerate of the people who own land where the city wants to build the pipeline.
By 2025, Thornton hopes to complete the pipeline’s total 75-miles from a Water Supply and Storage Company reservoir north of Fort Collins. Twenty-six miles of the stretch goes through Larimer County, whose board of commissioners denied Thornton’s application, leading the city to file a civil case against the Larimer County board in 2019. A Larimer County district court judge sided with the board, a decision Thornton appealed with the Colorado Court of Appeals last month.
Thornton filed the application for the 34-mile stretch in Weld County in 2018. Then, in May 2019, the Weld County Planning Commission recommended it for approval to the board. The board continued the case into 2020, ultimately resulting in a second planning commission hearing in July 2020. That time, the planning commission recommended denial to the board, exactly what the board did May 5.
The reason for the planning commission reversing its recommendation in 2020, and what has driven most of the debate about the pipeline in Weld County, is related to where the pipeline will be built. There are two options: underneath the county’s roads, also called the “right of way,” or adjacent to the road, on private land. Thornton’s preference has always been the latter option, since building the pipeline in the right of way would cause road delays and traffic risks, said Mark Koleber, Thornton Water Project director, at the May 5 hearing.
Putting the pipeline in the road, “is possible, but it’s not a sound decision to take a more impactful route than not,” Koleber said.
In 2019, the planning commission and board agreed. “The water pipeline route is generally located parallel to property lines and adjacent to Weld County future Right of way (ROW) minimizing the effects to agriculture,” the planning commission’s 2019 resolution read.
In 2019, the board continued the application because it wanted Thornton to obtain most of easements from property owners, Koleber explained. Thornton did that successfully during 2020, reaching agreements with most landowners without having to file for eminent domain.
Currently, Thornton has acquired easements for 98 percent of the Weld County stretch. Thornton obtained easements for about 29 percent of that through using eminent domain, Koleber explained.
However, some landowners didn’t like Thornton’s swift effort to obtain easements, including through eminent domain, and they protested. That’s why the planning commission changed its recommendation in 2020. “Concerns expressed from the landowners were in regard to the pipeline crossing their property and negotiations with the City of Thornton,” the planning commission’s 2020 resolution read.
The planning commission also asked Thornton to consider building in the right of way in certain areas along the stretch. So, the city revised its application to build in the right of way in six locations.
Thornton did what it thought it needed to, but pushback from landowners continued up until the May 5 hearing. Becky Hicks, whose daughter owns a farm in Weld County, said during public comments that Thornton is “making their problems our problem by putting their selfish wants over others” and that, “the unethical, immoral action by the city of Thornton cannot be condoned.” Six others followed Hicks, expressing similar sentiments. The commissioners seemed compelled.
At this point, Thornton could go through the conventional channels again, a lengthier process, or try to reverse the commissioners’ decision through the courts, a much quicker route if successful. Barnes didn’t indicate if the city is leaning in a particular direction and said staff plan to discuss the city’s options with Thornton City Council at a May 11 meeting.