by David Meyer, Wellington Advertiser
GUELPH – Wellington County council has told the Ministry of Environment it has no interest in taking part in the public consultation process that would permit wind turbines to be built in Wellington County.
Council made that decision on Feb. 24 in a closed session, after which Warden Chris White announced the county would make public a letter from its solicitor early this week.
“The County of Wellington does not support the approval of the NextEra proposal given the current significant deficiencies in the provincial approval process,” the letter states.
Arthur area resident John Krul, who has been opposed to the Next Era Energy proposal from the beginning, said, “We’re pleased. I’m hoping they [the county] have enough clout.”
He added it is time municipalities get together and tell the province “Enough.” He cited the recent moratorium on off-shore wind turbines because of a possible effect on water, and said the same effect could occur with land-based turbines.
The county letter was sent by lawyer Peter Pickfield to the manager of renewable energy approvals at the Ministry of the Environment (MOE). It addressed NextEra Energy’s application for a 10-turbine wind energy project in Mapleton Township, southwest Arthur.
NextEra had requested that both Mapleton Township and the county complete a municipal consultation form created by the ministry to address consultation requirements. In January Mapleton council refused to complete the forms, and now the county has followed suit.
“The county has determined that it cannot provide an adequate response to this or any other wind energy proposal within the confines of the municipal consultation form, or indeed within the constraints of the current regulatory regime in Ontario for approval of wind energy projects,” Pickfield stated in the county letter.
He said the county does not support the province’s changes to the approval process for wind energy projects that eliminated the role of land use planning as well as avenues for potential appeal for issues such as health impacts.
At least six wind energy projects are now either in the approval process or under active development and consideration in the county.
The NextEra proposal is the first at the county for comment since the province revoked municipal approval powers under the Planning Act through its Green Energy and Green Economy Act in 2009.
Pickfield said the county is concerned about “safeguarding the health, safety and livability of our rural communities.” He said the county has unanswered concerns. It has conducted research on potential impacts in rural communities, including consulting with other municipalities that host wind turbines, and done research on experience with wind farms.
Pickfield said while there is no clear scientifically accepted evidence on long term health impacts, “it is equally true that there is no clear scientifically accepted evidence ruling out the potential for health impacts.”
County officials considered a review by the Office of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and noted it does not rule out long term health consequences for people living near turbines. The province is undertaking studies and, in part, “it was for that reason that the county previously supported a moratorium on wind energy projects.”
He cited a November report from Hazel Lynn, Medical Officer of Health for Grey and Bruce County, which calls for further research.
Pickfield said many people, in Grey and Bruce Counties and southwestern Ontario have been affected by noise and proximity of wind farms, and the nature of the sounds make it especially difficult to measure or report.
Further, “Communities and individuals are facing difficult social choices. A determination has to be made as to what level or extent of negative impacts is tolerable; how many such affected neighbours are we willing to accept?”
The medical officer’s report identified eight areas for further research. The Board of Health for the Grey-Bruce Health Unit requested the province to undertake studies of issues identified in the report.
Pickfield said wind energy projects present significant change for rural communities. They can cause noise, shadow flicker, and changes to the visual landscape. Typically, those types of issues would be addressed through the municipal land use planning that is no longer available in Ontario for wind projects.
He said wind projects and mandatory provincial separation distance requirements from residential uses have the potential to severely constrain the location of future settlement areas, and could impact the ability of the county and area municipalities to meet provincial requirements, under the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Other potential impacts include reduction of agricultural productivity and on wildlife and natural heritage features. Agricultural productivity is a particular concern in Wellington County.
He said decisions on wind energy projects are entirely under the auspices of the MOE, using Renewable Energy Approval (REA), under the Environmental Protection Act.
If the approval of proposed wind energy project presents concerns for the county, or any other stakeholder, its only recourse is to try to fit its concerns to the “very limited appeal rights” of the Environmental Protection Act and land use planning issues do not appear to be valid grounds for appeal.
He said under the REA, the county, or any other stakeholder seeking a hearing to address unanswered questions or concerns would have to meet “the virtually impossible threshold test of demonstrating that the project will cause ‘serious harm to human health.’ … Rather than placing onus of demonstrating no health impacts on the proponent of a land use change, the REA … process reverses this onus and places the burden on appellants to surmount a high obstacle before a hearing can occur.”
In contrast, under the Planning Act, any proposed project would have had to follow the policy direction in municipal official plans and the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS).
Pickfield said appeals based on any other grounds “are simply not available.” Under the Planning Act there would have been a requirement to demonstrate new land uses will not create unacceptable land use conflicts with existing uses.
Some significant issues, such as visual impacts are not addressed at all.
He said municipal concerns about long term impacts of wind energy on growth management and settlement development in rural areas are not recognized as relevant in the REA process.
Impacts on agricultural lands or activities do not appear to be valid grounds for appeal of a REA application. Under the Planning Act, concerns about agricultural operations would be addressed through the requirement to conform to the agricultural policies in the county official plan.
A number of residents have brought to the attention of county councillors their view the REA process fails to deliver meaningful opportunities for public consultation, and county residents have expressed “legitimate frustration” the process gives them no opportunity to speak directly to the statutory decision maker.
He said because of that, the county is hamstrung in its ability to address a range of traditional municipal planning and impact issues.
“This restrictive approvals environment for wind energy projects is evident in your ministry’s municipal consultation form which provides no opportunity to address the above outstanding, fundamental issues related to wind energy projects in general, and the NextEra proposal in particular.”
County staff reviewed form NextEra requested be completed. It is able to identify a number of specific matters that require additional work by NextEra to satisfy county requirements.
– commercial entry permit requirements on County Road 12;
– winter maintenance issues arising from construction activities;
– minimizing and mitigating construction impacts, including minimizing tree loss and replanting requirements;
– consultation requirements with local municipalities for underground utilities, use of municipal roads, fire service or other issues and disturbances related to municipal services;
– lack of detail on mitigation of noise and visual impacts related to the proposed transformer station; and
– municipal consent requirements for use of the right of way on County Road 12.
County staff has also noted the NextEra application includes a wildlife review that documents numerous sightings of Bobolinks in the vicinity of the subject lands. Recently, the Bobolink was designated as a threatened species in Ontario. The NextEra review incorrectly categorizes the species as “regionally rare.”
He said the county is concerned that by completing and submitting this form, it could be taken to have given tacit approval to the NextEra application once its specific comments are addressed, even though its more fundamental concerns and questions, not available for consideration under the REA process, have not been addressed.
“Accordingly, county council has made the carefully considered decision not to complete the municipal consultation form.
He added that does not mean NextEra would not be required to meet all of the above county requirements before proceeding with its proposal, and NextEra is welcome to arrange to meet with county staff to discuss the specifics of those narrow but important requirements.
He said the decision not to submit the form should not be taken to mean the county is foregoing its rights to appeal under the Environmental Protection Act, should the county determine it has an obligation to pursue this matter through a hearing to the Environmental Review Tribunal.
“The decision not to complete the form is simply intended as an indicator that neither the form, nor the constrained role for municipal involvement under the REA process, serve the County’s interest in ensuring wise land use planning within the County.”
“Should your Ministry view the submission of the Municipal Consultation Form to be a necessary prerequisite to the exercise of any substantive legal rights, the county respectfully asks to be so advised, forthwith, so that it may determine an appropriate response to ensure protection of those rights.”