WEST LINCOLN – A West Lincoln planning committee meeting turned into a marathon debate that was both heated and at times comical Monday night.
More than 500 people wearing bright red and bright green shirts packed South Lincoln High School to show their opposition or support for two proposed industrial wind turbine developments across west Niagara.
The developments would see 82 wind turbines built on private land to produce electricity under Ontario’s Green Energy Act and the issue has been hugely controversial across the western part of the region.
On the schedule for Monday’s packed planning meeting was a recommendation by Ald. Alexander Micallef to enact a bylaw forcing developers to build turbines no closer than two kilometres from houses. Though municipalities don’t have the jurisdiction to change the existing 550 metres setback rules under the Green Energy Act, Micallef was following the lead of the Township of Wainfleet, which also changed its setback bylaw last year.
But at 11:40 p.m. Monday – five and a half hours after the meeting began – Micallef finally presented a motion that was far less fierce than everyone was expecting.
“My motion has been through several drafts and I’ve listened to numerous citizens on both sides of the wind issue. This has led me to take a measured approach to bringing forth my proposed actions,” he said.
Instead of recommending the two kilometre setback, Micallef’s motion was for staff to investigate how other municipalities have dealt with the setback rules and for the township to send a letter to the next premier of Ontario demanding the Green Energy Act be overhauled.
Before the committee had a chance to vote on the issue, however, the meeting had to be moved from South Lincoln High School back to the council chambers across the street because the township was only allowed to use the school until midnight.
After another lengthy debate among the aldermen, it appeared the motion was headed to a vote, but Micallef decided to instead send it to staff for more consideration. When he couldn’t get a seconder on that plan, he withdrew the original motion and the whole issue was dead at 12:45 a.m. Tuesday.
West Lincoln Mayor Doug Joyner said putting in a two-kilometre setback would have been going too far.
“There are many things a municipality can do to voice it’s opinion,” he said. “We have done what we can do, just short of putting in a two-kilometre setback. In my opinion, that would have been illegal and I will not expose this corporation to litigation.
“I don’t agree with it, but the provincial government took away the powers of the municipalities,” he said.
The 30 or so members of the gallery who stuck around to the end were almost all against the wind turbine developments, and voiced their displeasure to council when the motion was ruled dead.
“It’s just disappointing,” said West Lincoln resident Paul Vanderzanden. “I understand it’s illegal, but laws need to be challenged and challenging them sends a message.”
The public discussion leading up to the planning committee’s vote was raucous at times with emotions running high as a long line of residents and stakeholders voiced their opinions.
“I don’t care how much they have invested in this, we don’t want you here,” shouted West Lincoln resident Mike Chalupka earlier in the evening.
The biggest reaction Monday night came when developer Tom Rankin, who is one of the investors in the IPC project that includes five wind towers, tried to address the planning committee and was interrupted repeatedly by the crowd.
The larger of the two developments is for 77 turbines to be constructed by Niagara Region Wind Corporation. All would be built on private land with the company leasing space from property owners.
Randi Rahamim, a vice president with the NRWC said voting in the two-kilometre setback could have translated into tax increases.
“Wainfleet previously proposed it and they’re in court being sued,” she said. “So far, they’ve spent about $20,000 in legal fees and they expect to spend between $250,000 to $500,000. That could mean a tax increase of 5% to 10% to fight for a bylaw that’s not enforceable.”
Kithio Mwanzia, Director of Policy and Government Relations for the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, repeated Rahamim’s warning saying “the decision to pass a motion will expose the town to considerable court challenge and, based on past attempts in Ontario, it will not be successful.”
But those against the wind turbine developments said the fight would have been worth it.
“If this insane project goes ahead, West Lincoln will become a ghost town,” said Sue Atkins, whose property will have seven wind turbines within two kilometres of it.
The wind debate is far from over as it will be brought up again at the next regular West Lincoln council meeting Jan. 28, which will also be held at South Lincoln High school. At that meeting, Rahamim will be making a presentation to council to update them on the progress of the NRWC project, which will have a series of final public meetings across West Niagara in the first week of February.