Thornton's City Council meeting on June 29, 2021. (Liam Adams, Colorado Community Media)

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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.

Thornton City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved a resolution that overrides Weld County’s denial of a permit to build a segment of the Thornton Water Project, and authorized the start of construction.

The 74-mile Thornton Water Project 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 5 miles through Adams County. The rest of the pipeline will pass through towns and cities in those counties. 

“Thornton has followed all the processes, regulations required in every jurisdiction that our project impacts,” Thornton Mayor Jan Kulmann at the 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 was expected to approve the measure and discussed the resolution very little before voting. But Weld County residents were at the meeting to protest.

“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,” Rebecca Hicks told the council during public comments. Her daughter owns a farm just south of Johnstown where a stretch of the pipeline will be buried about 4-feet deep.

“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 said.

The approximate route of the 74-mile Thornton Water Pipeline from north of Fort Collins to the southeast part of the city. (Handout)

Weld County landowners, including Hicks and her daughter, have been influential opponents of Thornton as the city moved through the permit application process. In 2019, the Weld County Planning Commission recommended approval of the project, but landowner protests caused the panel to reverse its recommendation in 2020.  Residents’ complaints were also cited by commissioners as a reason for denying the permit at at a hearing on May 5.

The Weld County commissioners also said in a resolution dated June 3 that the pipeline would negatively affect future growth and that it was inconsistent with a new county comprehensive plan.

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.

But since the beginning of the process, Thornton has pursued the private-land option, which was supported by 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. Thornton has obtained easements from 98% of landowners. Some were obtained through eminent domain proceedings, frustrating specific landowners and further provoking their protest.

The pipeline, which runs from Terry Lake near Fort Collins to just east of Cobb Lake in Weld County and then south to the Wes Brown Water Treatment Plant in Thornton, will be buried and the city will compensate any landowners, especially farmers, whose land and crops are damaged by construction.

Weld County landowners were relieved when the commissioners denied the permit, and were beyond frustrated by 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 council meeting Tuesday.

City spokesman Todd Barnes confirmed that the city has already reached an agreement with Hicks’ family to construct part of the pipeline on their land. 

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.

Weld County negotiated terms with Thornton after the county recognized the city was able to override the denial. The terms still require the city to apply for road construction permits in areas where the pipeline crosses streets, 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.