Some homeowners in Centennial recently learned that trees in their back yards could be removed — and there appears to be little to nothing they can do about it. About 200 single-family homes sit …
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In response to a question at Xcel's January virtual informational meeting on the project, Xcel official Larry Claxton said: “I want to stress that we meet all of the state requirements and (state Public Utilities Commission) requirements for noise and EMF,” referring to electromagnetic fields.
For decades, concerns have been raised about whether EMFs can damage human health, including whether they can cause cancer. For the most part, evidence suggests the levels of EMF from a power line aren't dangerous.
Fred Barlow, a professor and the chair of the Department of Engineering and Engineering Technology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, pointed to the American Physical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, which have both concluded there was no consistent evidence of health risks from power lines.
"We design our power systems in this country to be 60 hertz (of frequency),” Barlow said. He added: “In contrast, a cellphone is approximately 2 gigahertz.” He explained that 1 gigahertz is 10 to the 9th (power), or 1 billion hertz.
He gave an analogy to illustrate that it's the frequency of a power source, not the voltage — which Xcel is increasing in the project — that matters for safety at a distance.
“With two different flashlights that are green, (if) one's brighter, that's the difference in voltage,” Barlow said. “In our power systems, it's all green light, if you will. It's the same frequency.”
A different color flashlight — different kind of radiation — would be needed to cause more danger, according to Barlow.
Comparing a power line to a dangerous source of radiation is a bit like comparing a penny to the national debt, Barlow said.
“Today the national debt is about $20 trillion — 20 times 10 to the 12th — so the difference between a penny and that debt is approximately 10 to the 14th,” Barlow said.
“In contrast, a gamma ray has a frequency of about 10 to the 19th hertz, versus the power system, which is at 60 Hz,” Barlow said. X-rays in hospitals are also a type of damaging radiation to the human body, he said.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, in 2002 published a finding classifying extremely low-frequency magnetic fields as "possibly carcinogenic to humans," meaning it has potential to cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
Much of the scientific research on long-term risks from that type of magnetic field exposure has focused on childhood leukemia, the WHO says.
Although a study in 1979 pointed to a possible association between living near power lines and childhood leukemia, more recent studies have had mixed findings, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“Most of the studies did not find an association or found one only for those children who lived in homes with very high levels of magnetic fields, which are present in few residences,” the institute's website says.
Asked about that, Barlow said: “The problem with that type of study is that it tends to confuse a weak statistical correlation with causation. Leukemia rates naturally vary and could be caused by a wide range of factors.”
Some residents have asked why Xcel doesn't put the lines underground, but Xcel says EMFs are generally higher directly over an underground installation than directly under an overhead installation and that the ground does not provide shielding. Barlow agreed, saying there are no health benefits to putting a line underground.
Littleton City Manager Mark Relph said Xcel Energy notified the city well over a year ago that its power line project was in the works.
“We've been briefed by their staff, and they have an easement,” Relph said. “It gives them ability to do whatever necessary to protect their interest. A couple things caught my attention: They're looking to replace old lattice structures and replace them with single poles. Visually it's an upgrade. Lattice structures stand out.”
Relph added that Xcel plans to “talk to each individual homeowner about how to manage” its removal of trees and moving of sheds.
“That's all we ask: that Xcel utilize a sensitive process. The short answer is we don't have much authority at all in this issue. The project is really (regulated) by the state and federal government," Relph said.
"Our role is to encourage them to interact with citizens in a polite and helpful manner. We have not heard complaints from anybody in Littleton," Relph continued.
In a statement, City of Englewood spokesman Chris Harguth said:
"Xcel Energy has a legal responsibility to maintain the lines which can require trimming or removal of vegetation to ensure safe and reliable electric service. To my knowledge, we have not received any complaints from residents regarding the Greenwood to Denver Terminal project."
Devin Granbery, city manager for Sheridan, told Colorado Community Media that the project generally isn't a concern for Sheridan and that the city has been aware of it for some time.
In a statement, the City of Centennial said: “There is no requirement by law for outreach or notice to the public for this project. The city did request Xcel to provide some notice and conduct public outreach in advance of construction, which they did.”
— David Gilbert and Ellis Arnold
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
To request a meeting with Xcel representatives, see here.
Reporter David Gilbert contributed to this story.
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