By Marg Bruineman, Barry Examiner
Bernard Pope looks at a farm field pushing up corn and shakes his head.
“Now tell me that isn’t good farm land,” he says with disdain. “All that property is going to be solar. The land next to it just had grain taken off it.”
The farm, just outside Midhurst on Concession 2 in Oro-Medonte Township, is one of 10 in the area where California company, Recurrent Energy, wants to install a solar operation. About 75 acres of that property will be covered in solar panels instead of corn and other crops for the next 30 years.
Pope, a farmer with a day job whose Bass Lake property is within walking distance of three of the proposals, says in its zest, provincial organizations are moving too rapidly with its solar plans. While some land is not useful for much else, the projects he’s been eyeing are going to be taking good farmland out of production for an awfully long time.
One of the properties, he says, has been farmed since 1828. He warns that, while the program has merits, it is littered with flaws that, once implemented can’t be reversed.
And it lays the foundation for further mistakes.
Pope travels along Doran Road, just east of Midhurst, pointing to the open land on both sides.
All of it has been sold to speculators.
With farms in the area fetching up to $2 million for 100 acres, some local farmers are retiring in a comfort they couldn’t access in their working lives.
The investors hope to someday build homes in the area and they are happy to wait, 10, even 20 years, watching the land further increase in value. The farmers continue to work the land, in the interim.
Pope says there’s nothing he can do about the loss of farm land in development areas. But the solar initiative on farms is in its infancy and should be checked before it matures.
The best farmland, Classes 1 and 2, can’t be used for wholesale solar production and Class 3 is limited to 500 kilowatts. Everything else, up to Class 7 the worst land to farm, are open to solar development.
Those opposing solar projects say there are flaws with the land designation -an old classification that is too broad and doesn’t necessarily reflect the current status of the land.
Pope suggests each proposed property should be independently assessed before the go-ahead is given for solar production.
“They just seem to be going into something that’s too good to be true,” said Pope. “It hasn’t been researched properly.
“The government is moving ahead too quickly, with a policy with too many holes in it.”
To move the process along, the Green Energy Act removes the approval process typically required from the municipality. No re-zoning is required. While public meetings and reports are necessary, all approvals are done on the provincial level.
This too, is a concern.
“What the province did… is they took the municipal approval away,” said Andria Leigh, director of development services for Oro-Medonte Township. “It is a bit of a concern for the municipality.”
There are worries that the proposals remove good farmland from production. There are also worries that some of the solar instalments could adversely affect adjoining property – largely homes on severed lots.
Council has heard from both Recurrent Energy about its four proposals in the township as well as Pope. And the municipality is encouraged by the comp a n y’s promise to return to council once some studies are completed.
But the company isn’t required to report to municipality or even deal with it unless it wants to put up a structure under the building code.
The municipality knows that there is an appeal mechanism, but everything’s so new, it’s not clear what that mechanism is and how it will work.
Leigh said the municipality would prefer to just get everything done right in the first place and not go the route of an appeal.
“There’s nothing to look at as comparable,” she said.
Mayor Harry Hughes says there are more questions, it seems, than answers. And Oro- Medonte isn’t satisfied with the responses it’s received so far.
“Whether it has to go on farmland at all is a question,” he said.
One unanswered question is the impact to the township’s bottom line. A manufacturing facility or an industry would command a tax rate different than land zoned agricultural. Since the zoning process has been removed from the municipality, how solar production farms will compensate the municipality for use of its services is unclear.
“We’ve asked the question, but we’ve never received an answer,” said Hughes. “The concern is… where this whole thing is going.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to go on for… or if there’s going to be more.”
There are also questions about the practical application of the project. Hughes wants to know how high the panels will be off the ground. If they’re high enough, maybe the land can continue to be used for sheep grazing, he muses. That, at least, will keep the land useable and somewhat viable in the future for farming. If the panels are too low, their use could well be paralyzed in the winter by snow build up, he furthers.
“As I look out of my living room window, I will be looking out at a solar farm,” concludes Hughes, who lives on Line 6, north of Highway 11.