Residents with objections to a proposed wind plant on Wolfe Island have won important changes to the mega-project after an agreement was reached yesterday at an independent hearing.
The changes will mean that Canadian Hydro Developers Inc., which is planning to erect 86 turbines over the western portion of the rural island, will have to position the tower-like structures further away from wetlands, roads, homes and schools.
The agreement, reached during a three-day Ontario Municipal Board hearing, also calls for more public involvement in the controversial project through the establishment of a community liaison group.
News of the compromise brought tears of relief to the eyes of several islanders who attended the hearing.
“Yes, thank God,” said Janet White, in a loud whisper as tears streamed down her face.
“Our children can be safe now.”
Several other spectators hugged at the end of the hearing.
For many, the agreement between the residents, the company and the township represents a new chapter in what has become an emotional, and sometimes nasty, debate among islanders over the $410-million project.
Some residents said they felt as if the process of going through the hearing healed some of the wounds caused by the divide in the community over the issue in recent months.
Sarah McDermott and Dr. James Day appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board after the Township of Frontenac Islands passed a zoning bylaw in November 2006 that gave the project planning approval to move forward.
The bylaw establishes the distance the 90-metre-high turbines will be located from wetlands, roads, homes and other structures.
Both McDermott and Day have maintained these distances, called setbacks, should be greater as a matter of public safety and protection for the natural environment on the island.
“I think the citizens of Wolfe Island have made great progress in reaching this settlement, but [these changes] should have been done long ago,” McDermott told the Whig-Standard.
The agreement states that the setback distance for the residential village and schools will be increased from 350 metres to 600 metres. It also states that the turbines can’t be closer than 400 metres (up from 350 metres) from homes for the aged and hospitals. As well, it adds 120 metres to the setbacks for wetlands and roads.
But McDermott also said the work isn’t done to ensure the project won’t impact the island’s natural environment and its sensitive bird habitat. She plans to continue lobbying the Ministry of the Environment to ensure her concerns are considered.
Dr. Day agreed that he’ll do the same.
In a rare interview about the matter, he told the Whig yesterday he was going to remain vigilant about the project to keep close watch on how it will impact the wetland area that is near where he lives. Day also plans to push for more studies on the bird habitat on Wolfe Island and how the turbines would potentially affect various species. If those studies indicate a need to put into place mitigating steps such as turning off the turbines during bird migrations, he’ll work tirelessly to make sure it happens.
“I’m still concerned,” he said.
Initially, Day and McDermott had called for the zoning bylaw to be rescinded, but their lawyer, Peggy Smith, announced during this week’s hearing that they would agree to have it amended.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The deal took nearly two days of intense negotiation behind closed doors between the lawyers for Canadian Hydro, the Township of Frontenac Islands and the appellants.
In the end, all parties were happy with the seven-page agreement, which included the amended zoning bylaw.
Rob Miller of Canadian Hydro said the company was pleased with the outcome of the hearing and saw the whole process as a chance for people to communicate about the problematic issues.
“The outcome is better than we could have expected,” he said in an interview. “Really it was a sigh of relief.”
Miller said that he was particularly encouraged by the addition of a community liaison committee, which will help forge a better relationship with the people of the community. He wasn’t sure why the idea wasn’t suggested before.
“Maybe, [in the early days of the project] there was a misconception that everyone was on side,” he said.
Township of Frontenac Islands Mayor Jim Vanden Hoek was also happy that the appeal had reached a positive conclusion with an agreement. “I think it’s a good project for the island and we’re happy that the OMB came out with something for both sides,” he said in an interview. “A settlement between the two parties is better than having a ruling from the board.”
OMB member Marc C. Denhez, who oversaw the proceedings, told the hearing at its conclusion yesterday he accepted the agreement and will include its contents in his written decision, to be issued at a later date.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the board finds no objection whatsoever to this arrangement,” he told the hearing.
Denhez also commented he was surprised that the parties to the hearing, originally scheduled for five days, were able to come to an agreement after only three.
“Quite frankly, this wasn’t an easy matter,” he said. “We really have to take our hats off to you.”
Denhez isn’t expected to release his decision until after the Environmental Review Report, a key document that shows the environmental impacts of the wind project, comes out in the next couple of months. The Environmental Review Report will contain the co-ordinates of each individual turbine and that information will be added to the amended zoning bylaw.
By Jennifer Pritchett
26 July 2007
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