NEW ROSS – It spanned two meetings, more than eight hours, and about 150 people at each meeting, but the Chester municipal government now has the public input it required as part of its bid to build the province’s largest wind farm.
About 150 people turned out to Forest Heights Community School on March 4, a continuation of the February 21 meeting, to voice their concerns or have their opinions made known. The meeting began at 7 p.m. and ended just before midnight.
At that point Warden Allen Webber said municipal council had a lot of work to do before it could make a decision on the proposed South Canoe Wind Farm project.
“I think it was unreasonable for anybody to expect for council to absorb all the information it heard that evening and then sit around and debate the issue several more hours into the morning,” he said. “We wanted to complete the public participation piece if we could, which we were able to accomplish.”
The warden said council was inundated with information at the meeting, and also throughout the day with submissions of various letters, e-mails and reports concerning the project.
“A very significant number of them,” he said. “I think we just need some time to digest the information.”
That said, the majority of the information presented to council, he added, wasn’t new information. Rather it was information that just helped reinforce the public’s opinion on the project, be it positive or negative.
“I believe it was all the same information, just stated in different ways,” he said. “It was things we heard before. There was nothing particularly new that I found in the hearing. It was just restated in different fashions.”
The sheer volume of information and participation he said was impressive, but not necessarily unexpected. It’s why the meeting was held at Forest Heights rather than the council chambers.
“I think if you asked me that question a year ago I’d say I didn’t quite expect many [people at the hearing],” he said. “But it became fairly evident over the last several months with the inquiries and the corresponding e-mails that we could anticipate a significant number of people to participate in the public hearing. Actually, I’m surprised there weren’t more. I bet you if we had another one we’d have another 35 to 40 people who would like to speak.”
The majority of the speakers spoke against the wind farm. Perhaps the most vocal throughout the entire process, not just the public hearing, is the Friends of South Canoe Lake group.
Publicly they are represented by Emily Peters.
She said she was very pleased with the turnout at the meetings.
“Yes, 150 to 200 attendees each night is quite remarkable for a small community,” she said. “It is a clear statement of the concern the community has about this proposed project.”
Ms Peters said their position is not as clearly defined as being an opponent to the wind farm.
“What is being raised is the concern that, given the close proximity of these windmills to the adjacent occupied and unoccupied properties, there are health concerns and impacts on people’s property values which have not been addressed by the developer,” she said. “Having so many members of the community stand up and express these concerns appears to have at least given council reason to stop and consider this proposal very carefully. If people had not spoken up, this project would have likely drifted through the process, unquestioned, just like it did through the environmental review process which was when these concerns should have been discussed.”
As the project currently stands the turbine setbacks would be 1.2 kilometres from residential property lines.
The group would prefer to see more research done in terms of setbacks and turbine size.
“Given the concerns raised by so many residents and as suggested to council in the past, as a minimum, they should establish a resident-based committee to determine a safe setback for the windmills that will protect health and minimize impacts on property values,” Ms Peters said. “Ideally, council should defer any decision on this project until a comprehensive policy can be developed which addresses not only minimum setbacks but the sizes and numbers of windmills permitted as well as establish any other criteria necessary to protect people’s health and minimize impacts on the community.”
The local Chester Municipal Chamber of Commerce was one of the few organizations that spoke out in favour of the project.
Jo Ann Grant, the president, said this is a great opportunity for the municipality to prove it’s open to business.
“The chamber’s position is this is an opportunity for positive economic development with clean, sustainable energy,” she said. “It’s going to create somewhere around 100 jobs. We realize they are temporary, but we’ve also found once people spend time in the municipality they find this is a place they’d really like to come and live. And maybe they will create their own jobs. It’s also going to create four to five permanent jobs.
“If we’re not open to having a wind farm then what are we open to? If we go forward with this it sends out a signal to potential investors in the municipality that we are open to business. I think that’s really an important factor here.”
Ms Peters isn’t arguing against green energy or the municipality being open to business.
She is concerned about health and safety factors, as well as property values and assessments.
As for the argument the project cannot be altered to compromise, that it is too far in to be changed, she doesn’t buy it.
“That is a tired and facile argument industry uses to push their agenda through before the public and local government has adequate information to make a balanced and informed decision,” she said. “It would be similar to the argument that the developer is using that to place conditions, such as greater setbacks, on the project would make it unviable.
“Ideally, council should defer any decision on this project until a comprehensive policy can be developed which addresses not only minimum setbacks but the sizes and numbers of windmills permitted as well as establish any other criteria necessary to protect people’s health and minimize impacts on the community.”
From council’s point of view, Mr. Webber said nothing has been decided.
“I know we have to sit down with our solicitor and planner and figure out what our options are, what our legal obligations are,” he said. “I think the developer has a right to expect this won’t drag on forever. He’s made application. I would expect by the end of March we’ll have come to a conclusion one way or another. It’s just too early to tell how council will respond to the information. We are bound by certain restrictions and guidelines. There are certain criteria that we have to ensure have been met. And we haven’t determined that yet.”
As for follow-up from the public hearings, council set a schedule for deliberations regarding the wind project.
The following meetings have been scheduled by council: March 14 at 8:45 a.m. This is a regularly scheduled council meeting; therefore, regular business will be discussed first. March 20 at 6 p.m. This is a special meeting of council, specifically scheduled to discuss the South Canoe Wind Project. March 21 at 8:45 a.m. This was originally scheduled as a committee of the whole meeting, but was changed to a council meeting to deliberate about the project and public hearing.
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