A drive to the Municipality of the District of Guysborough doesn’t happen randomly. It requires some semblance of purpose, taking the necessary exit on Highway 104 to a route that leads you into a land of salt air, high winds and million-dollar vistas.
When you take this drive you’ll find a community with the lowest tax rate in Nova Scotia; a community that’s enjoying an influx of residents from away, people who are willing to (and insist upon) invest and buy locally. The extreme examples of this ideal manifest themselves in the the new brewery, and cafe, and inn, the proposed distillery and the new ownership of the local golf course. Drive far enough and you’ll even find an old train car on it’s own stretch of track without electricity running to it.
It’s an amazing story of success, but there’s work that remains to be done.
With the addition of the former Town of Canso, the municipality must find ways to spread the growing prosperity all the way to the end of the line. Fortunately, Mother Nature (and municipal council) have a plan. It’s a plan that, if successful, could bring lower tax rates to the farthest reaches of the municipality, green energy, progressive planning and hopes for a new dawn of energy development to the area.
That might help explain why, no matter where you drive and who you speak with, you’d be hard pressed to find opposition to the municipality’s latest vision for wind development.
It could be the environmental benefits or the possibility of lower power bills. Or maybe it’s because the area has had a hard go of it for so long, but when one raises the subject of windmills in Canso, it’s difficult to find someone who’s unhappy.
“The more the merrier is what I say,” Jerry Rumsden said in between sips from his bottle of beer.
Rumsden and some of the local brain trust are gathered in Patrick Parker’s Water Street shed one December day, sitting in folding chairs and enjoying the heat from the wood stove. They’re happy to answer a reporter’s questions about windmills, possibly because Canso residents are giving of their time (and beer, if one is so inclined) but mainly because the six turbines the Municipality of the District of Guysborough will build in the Canso-Hazel Hill area represent major development – and jobs – for an area that hasn’t seen much of either in a while.
“Any little thing will help us,” said Parker.
Like Rumsden, he’s lived here all his life. He’s seen the boom days and was here when the boom went bust.
The story of what happened in Canso after the fish plant closed in 1990 has been told many times. Ironically, the transmission lines, installed years ago to deliver power to the plant, have played a key role in the wind farm’s development. In fact, without them this development would not be happening.
Parker’s brother, Daniel, remembers when 500 people worked at the fish plant. These days the only action on the wharf is trucks picking up the latest catch to take it somewhere else to be processed.
“It’s just a landing place,” he said. “Eighteen-wheelers coming and going all the time.”
In neighbouring Little Dover, not far from Parker’s wood-smoke scented shed, Phillip MacKenzie has the kind of view people search out after winning the lottery. It will change dramatically in the coming years.
But like the crew back on Water Street, and in the local pizza joint and just about anyone else you can find, MacKenzie has no complaints.
“We’ve got to diversify somehow,” he said. “I think it would be great to get up in the morning, look off my upstairs patio and see a windmill going around.”
The $25-million Sable Wind project will see the development of six 2.3-megawatt turbines.
With a 20-year purchase agreement with Nova Scotia Power in place, the project will produce enough energy to power 4,600 homes. Construction is scheduled to begin this year and the wind farm is scheduled to become operational before the end of 2014.
Such projects have a mixed history in Nova Scotia.
Anne Murray didn’t want to see windmills near the Gulf Shore, in part because she was upset about the impact on the view for her local golf course. She and others in the area made enough fuss to make a proposed project blow away. In Kings County, councillors put a ban on such developments following a gale of public criticism; no threat of windmills there anymore.
Cumberland County officials, on the other hand, have embraced wind energy. Entering the province from New Brunswick is like having a Jurassic Park moment, the massive turbines on the marsh coming into view like the long necks of brontosauruses, minus the T-Rex moment and the blood-thirsty Velociraptors.
In Guysborough County, as the boys in Canso and Little Dover will tell you, the turbines can’t go up fast enough.
The possibility of jobs and development aside, Warden Lloyd Hines believes their acceptance has a lot to do with municipal council being open with residents.
“We made (the public) a part of the plan and we asked for their acceptance of the plan and that has worked for us,” said Hines.
Past experiences with public consultation and environmental assessments for things such as pipelines also went a long way in learning the right way to handle things. And it didn’t hurt that the municipality overhauled its land-use strategy and zoning to make its future intentions clear. There’s no risk here of someone building a house, only to learn several years later that windmills might go up next door.
Hines is gregarious and enthusiastic when he talks about the area and its future potential. Holding court around maps in the council chambers, Hines talks about his municipality with the confidence that comes from being in office for 25 years, the last 15 as warden.
He knows every square inch of the place and its history: why a certain boundary line seems to zig and zag (the result of a rumoured hard night for the fellow tasked with the job) or why pipelines follow circuitous rather than direct routes (the discovery of a rare reptile in the proposed path). Hines might as well have been the cartographer who plotted the place.
These days the course the warden and his colleagues are trying to chart is one of sustainability and security.
The municipality has been realistic about the realities of offshore royalties, and the need to find something to replace them. It’s been a 10-year process, but (with apologies to Bob Dylan) they discovered that the answer was blowing in the wind.
“The reality is that Sable Offshore Energy project … is a carbon-based resource that is depleting,” said Hines. “We were looking for a legacy project and, all of a sudden, here it was in front of us all this … time.”
The Nova Scotia Wind Atlas says the wind here is among the finest in the province, behind only the northern reaches of Cape Breton. Not only is it good wind – consistent and strong – it’s also valuable.
As offshore revenues decline in the coming years, the money generated by Sable Wind will make up a good portion of what would otherwise be a gaping financial hole for a municipality with a population of 4,600. Hines and his colleagues have been aware of the numbers for sometime and it’s the driving reason behind Sable Wind.
“We’d have to find a way to replace a significant portion of our budget, probably 40 per cent of our total revenue (with the loss of offshore royalties),” said Hines. “That’s just too big a hit to take.”
The signs on the telephone poles in Canso stress the separation of the two syllables in the name. It’s a defiant affirmation, reminiscent of a Stan Rogers lyric, in the face of any outsider, naysayer or city slicker who might fail to recognize that even after the hardest of hits, this place, which is prettier than most, is populated with people who still have hope.
People like Fin Armsworthy.
A town councillor until Canso dissolved last year to join the more prosperous rural municipality, Armsworthy is now the area’s voice at a larger table. It takes but a moment to realize the man bleeds Canso and Guysborough County.
With the benefit of 55 years in Canso, Armsworthy sees Sable Wind as a smart financial move for the municipality and possibly “a light at the end of the tunnel” in his port of call.
He and everyone else here is smart enough to know you can’t count on something happening until it’s up and running. There are some significant proposed developments for the area but they don’t count until people are showing up for work. Armsworthy, however, is hoping these efforts can help bring some sustainability, perhaps a few new jobs and businesses and, with them, some young people who might even see the benefit of raising a family here.
“We’ll probably never rebound to where we were (before) we lost the fishery, but we can rebound to make it a very stable community and a very big part of the Municipality of Guysborough,” he said.
To carry thoughts of that weight, Armsworthy and others will have to hope that Hines is right about the strength of the wind.
Michael Gorman is The Chronicle Herald’s Truro Bureau Chief.