By Paul Schliesmann, The Kingston Whig Standard
A Wolfe Island couple’s upcoming property assessment hearing could jeopardize the future of wind turbine projects across Ontario.
Gail and Ed Kenney have been granted a potentially precedent-setting date with the Ontario Assessment Review Board in November to argue that their property has been devalued by nearby wind turbines.
“It’s about the industrialization of the area,” said Gail Kenney. “We’re living in an industrial wind plant, with the noise and lighting — all those issues and many more.”
If they win their appeal, it could eventually make it difficult for wind generation companies to find new locations to set up their projects.
At the very least, a victory could mean a loss of tax assessment for municipalities where wind farms are located.
“There are 86 wind turbines on Wolfe Island,” said John Andrew, a commercial real estate specialist in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University.
“Any turbine might potentially affect a dozen properties.”
The case is being closely watched by the Township of Frontenac Islands and TransAlta, the company that owns and operates the turbines.
“If someone is saying our facility is devaluing their property, that’s a concern,” said TransAlta’s director of community relations, Jason Edworthy.
He acknowledged that declining property values might make other municipalities think twice about hosting wind farms.
“The whole industry would have difficulty finding places to go and I suspect that would be the same for other land uses,” said Edworthy.
The Kenneys, who live on the northwest side of the island, facing Kingston, can see 28 turbines from the property where they’ve lived since 1966. The closest is about 750 metres away.
“At the same time the re-assessment was being done, the wind farm was (under) construction,” Gail Kenney said, “yet the wind farm was not considered within the assessment.
“We started to take a look at it. We feel we are in an industrial area now with a lot of industrial issues imposed on us.”
Kenney said they are also concerned about their personal health, but she wouldn’t elaborate. The Kenneys will represent themselves at the hearing and she said she doesn’t want to argue the case in public prior to November.
Though Frontenac Islands has hired a lawyer to attend the hearing, Mayor Jim Vanden Hoek told the Whig-Standard that the township doesn’t get involved in assessment hearings.
“That is an issue between who appeals and MPAC,” he said.
When asked why the township hired a lawyer for this particular case, he refused to comment.
The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation will also have legal representation at the hearing.
Kenney said she is concerned about a phone call she received on Aug. 30 from TransAlta’s Edworthy — the same day she and her husband filed their disclosure for the hearing.
“It wasn’t threatening. It was pressure,” recalled Kenney. “He said we were not displaying the spirit of co-operation by appealing our taxes and naming TransAlta.”
Kenney has been a leading member of Wolfe Island Residents for the Environment, a citizens’ group that has fought the turbine project from day one.
Last winter, Edworthy travelled to Wolfe Island for a community meeting. Kenney convinced him to return when more of the island’s summer residents could attend.
In late July, they met at the Kenneys’ house and for two hours discussed a “wish list” of projects the company and residents could undertake to improve relations and help mitigate the effects of the turbines.
“We were trying to get a new direction for WIRE,” said Kenney. “Instead of whining all the time, we wanted to set a new direction.”
One of the ideas they agreed might work would be planting trees to buffer the noise from the turbines and block them from view.
Then came Edworthy’s phone call on Aug. 30, after he had been notified of the MPAC hearing by someone on the island.
“Our folks talk to folks at the township all the time,” he said.
The message didn’t sit well with him.
“That day, at that time, I was working with a guy about the tree planting,” Edworthy recalled. “I called (Gail Kenney) and said, ‘I just heard about this, what’s the story? This doesn’t seem to be in the same spirit of co-operation we were talking about.’
“It made it harder for me to feel personally motivated (to work) on the tree planting that day.”
Kenney was equally upset by Edworthy’s call.
“I said, ‘What, is TransAlta intimidated by two retired people? This is none of your business. You’re trying to bully me.’
“Why would he call me from Calgary the day you have to have your disclosures out? Why would he mention our appeal?”
Edworthy said the presence of the wind farm has resulted in lower taxes on Wolfe Island.
“I hear it’s significant. Two hundred dollars for each house,” he said.
Township treasurer Carol Dwyre confirmed there has “absolutely” been a lowering of taxes due to the increased industrial assessment on the turbines, as much as $1,000 for one homeowner.
Prior to the wind farm opening, the industrial assessment on Wolfe Island was $27,360, mainly from a rock quarry operation. Today, with the turbines, it is more than $7.6 million.
The assessment is paid by TransAlta and is equal to the difference in taxes that would have been applied to the landowners who had the 86 turbines built on their properties.
Those landowners also receive an annual payment from Trans – Alta of about $7,000 per turbine.
Then there’s the $600,000 a year TransAlta turns over to Frontenac Islands to spend any way council wishes.
An MPAC spokesman said the agency will argue against any reduction of assessment on the Kenney’s property because there is no evidence based on house sales near the turbines to support their claim.
“We had no sales on Wolfe Island and we still don’t have any,” said Andy Anstett, manager of legislation and policy support services. “To date there’s no indication of value reduction.”
Still, Anstett said they are taking no chances at the hearing.
MPAC is particularly concerned about a Sept. 12, 2008, ruling in southwestern Ontario.
A homeowner in Amaranth Township complained about the humming noise coming from a wind turbine transformer station across the road and won a 50% reduction in his assessment.
“We didn’t think it was justified,” said Anstett. “There was no substantiated reason for it.”
At Queen’s, Andrew said the Kenneys are probably revealing information that many landowners on Wolfe Island don’t want made public.
“They’re saying, ‘Our property is less valuable,’ and that would further stigmatize Wolfe Island properties,” Andrew said. “For the township, they’re probably worried that this is going to open the floodgates. If the Kenneys get a lower assessment, they’re for certain going to get a flood of appeals.
“Should they care? Maybe that’s fair. I understand those property owners agreed to have the turbines. The problem is, nobody asked the neighbours.”