Thornton can start building a segment of a water pipeline in Weld County, even though the Weld County Board of Commissioners told the city "no" two months ago.
On Tuesday night, Thornton City Council unanimously approved a resolution that overrides Weld County's denial of a permit to build a segment of the Thornton Water Project, and to authorize commencement of the pipeline's construction.
The entire Thornton Water Project is 74 miles long and it will deliver water from a reservoir near Fort Collins, nearly doubling the city's current water supply. Twelve miles of the pipeline will run through Larimer County, 34 miles through Weld County, and five miles through Adams County. The rest of the pipeline will go in municipalities throughout those three counties.
“Thornton has followed all the processes, regulations required in every jurisdiction that our project impacts,” said Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann at a June 29 meeting. “But at the end of the day, we have to use every option that we can to make sure that the pipeline is constructed, and the water arrives here in Thornton.”
The council discussed the resolution very little before approving it at a June 29 meeting. Though council's vote for approval was expected, Weld County residents who were at the meeting protested.
“You are sickening, unconscionable and disgraceful people of the lowest order serving your selfish interests only and disregarding the basic tenets of humanity and fairness,” said Rebecca Hicks to council during public comments.
“You and your sinister minions have destroyed lives and properties in your reprehensible land grab and unconscionable use of eminent domain in your at-risk schemes and tactics,” Hicks added.
With Fourth of July coming up, Hicks likened Thornton to the 18th-century British Empire.
Weld County landowners were influential opponents of Thornton when the city went through the permit application process. In 2019, the Weld County Planning Commission recommended approval of the project, but landowner protest from landowners caused the planning commission to reverse its recommendation in 2020. Residents' complaints were also cited by commissioners as a reason for denying the permit at a hearing on May 5.
In addition to elevating landowners' complaints, Weld County commissioners said the pipeline would negatively affect future growth and that it was inconsistent with a new county comprehensive plan, according to a Weld County board resolution dated June 3.
Some Weld County residents want Thornton to build its pipeline in the right-of-way, or literally underneath a county road, instead of on private land next to the road. Thornton has always wanted the opposite and since the beginning of the application process, has had support from Weld County staff.
Building in the right-of-way requires an easement from the county, while building outside of the right-of-way requires easements from private landowners. Going with the private land option, Thornton went out and obtained easements from 98% of landowners during the permit application process. Some easements were obtained through eminent domain proceedings, frustrating specific landowners and further provoking their protest.
The pipeline will be buried four feet underground. The city will compensate any landowners, especially farmers, whose land and crops are damaged by construction.
Weld County landowners were relieved when Weld County commissioners denied the permit, meaning they were beyond frustrated at the news that Thornton could simply reverse the denial.
“Never did we expect to have our land stolen by unscrupulous people who could by statutory loopholes destroy our rights to ownership,” Hicks said at the June 29 council meeting. City spokesman Todd Barnes confirmed that the city has already reached an agreement with Hicks' family to construct part of the pipeline on their farm, just south of Johnstown.
Kathy Zeiler Weinmeister, who spoke during public comments on behalf of Zeiler Farms Inc. in Weld County, said Thornton, “is choosing to pursue its timeline without regards to the real value of our land.”
A state statute allows Thornton to overrule Weld County's denial because the city is financing and constructing the pipeline, not the county.
Before the June 29 council meeting, Weld County negotiated terms with Thornton after the county recognized Thornton was able to override the denial. The terms still require the city to apply for road construction permits in areas where the pipeline crosses the street, to regularly communicate with county staff about the progress of construction, and to be diligent about dust management.
The city hasn't said yet when it plans to break ground.