PONTYPOOL – It brings to mind David and Goliath.
Diane Chen, property developer for the Buddhist Association of Canada’s Cham Shan Temple project, is a tiny woman, barely topping the podium as she testified in Pontypool at the Environmental Review Tribunal on Wednesday (Dec. 4).
But, she seemed to increase in stature as she faced tough cross examination from lawyers for the Ministry of Environment and wind energy company wpd Canada.
Ms Chen gave as good as she got; when one lawyer asked a question, she responded, “And, your relevant point is?” to much laughter.
But, when Ms Chen continued to spar with Matthew Horner, a lawyer for the Director of the Ministry of Environment, Tribunal vice-chair Heather Gibbs told her to stop being argumentative and answer the questions put to her.
“He’s asking the questions and you’re answering,” Ms Gibbs said.
More From The Hearing: Oak Ridges Moraine Is At Risk From Wind Turbines
Last December, the Province granted approval to wpd Canada for its Sumac Ridge wind energy project, which will build five industrial wind turbines (two of them on the Oak Ridges Moraine) in Manvers Township.
Following that approval, Manvers Wind Concerns, a group of citizens opposed to the project, Cransley Home Farm Ltd. and the Cham Shan Temple launched an appeal.
The Temple is a multi-million dollar project that mirrors the four sacred Temples in China, allowing spiritual and meditational pilgrimages. The Buddhists have already built the main Temple on Ski Hill Road in Manvers Township and have said if Sumac Ridge goes ahead, they will not build the remaining three.
The appellants claim industrial wind turbines, which are about 475 feet tall, will have a significant and negative impact on the environment, human health, and the flora and fauna of the area. They have also pointed to the economic impact, but their lawyer, Eric Gillespie, told This Week that issue will not be allowed to be raised at the hearing.
The appellants’ case has been heard for several weeks beginning last month and is in its final days of testimony. Wednesday’s proceedings focused on witnesses for the Cham Shan Temple.
Ms Chen explained their case hinges on the fact that the Buddhists bought the properties on Ballyduff, Lifford, Ski Hill and Pontypool roads about 20 years ago, with the specific purpose of building the four temples. When the Buddhists were looking to purchase land for the temple sites, the fact that the Oak Ridges Moraine Act prevented significant development was a key factor in the decision, as they sought the peace and quiet of rural land.
She explained Buddhist practice, its focus on mental concentration, insisting that excessive noise would defeat the purpose of a meditational pilgrimage.
Those pilgrimages, Ms Chen said, are a fundamental part of the Buddhist faith.
But, one of the routes of the pilgrimage is only about one kilometre from the proposed turbines.
“It’s the size of the turbines,” she said. “The reason we bought lots of land around the sites was to insulate the temple sites from noise.”
“Sumac Ridge is right in the middle of our complex. It’s not a little church or a little temple on a little hill.”
Ms Chen explained how a Buddhist pilgrimage takes place; in 2008 one from the temple in Thornhill to Manvers Township took almost six months. Pilgrims take three steps, prostrate themselves on the ground, pray and resume the walk. That process is repeated throughout the journey and requires intense focus.
The Cham Shan Temple wants to offer the same experience, just as in China, and Ms Chen said peace and quiet is essential for the spirituality of the pilgrimage.
She gave a detailed presentation of the sites, explaining the proposed pilgrimage routes and that noise and the visual of wind turbines would have a negative psychological impact on the pilgrims; in effect completely defeating the purpose of the temple. Ms Chen said the Buddhists had also made every effort to find a solution to the issue, with no success.
“We did everything we can to see if there was an alternative. There is not.”
She did not react well to any suggestion that she is not a doctor, psychologist or a lawyer, insisting she did not testify as such. But, she was qualified as an expert witness on the Buddhist Association’s projects in Manvers Township.
The lawyers for the Province and wpd Canada raised the point that the Buddhist’s main Temple in Thornhill is on a busy street with a lot of traffic, which is a noise factor.
Ms Chen said people raised in an urban environment become used to traffic as background noise, which prompted Mr. Horner to ask if that could also be the case with wind turbines – that people would become accustomed to it.
But, Ms Chen said Buddhists were anxious and “mentally stressed” that the turbines would be virtually in the centre of the Cham Shan Temple area, and that some people are not able to overcome the visual and audible distractions.
Mr. Horner suggested the Buddhists understood there was traffic, such as on Highway 115 when they bought the properties. But, Ms Chen said noise from the highway is not an issue. “Perhaps all the trees block it; we don’t hear it.”
He also asked about the aggregate pit in the area, of which Ms Chen said she had no knowledge. Ward 16 Coun. Heather Stauble told This Week during a break there are two pits, but neither are noisy. “I never get any complaints about them,” she said.
But, Ms Chen said Mr. Horner was “putting me in a very awkward position” by asking questions about aggregate pits. “You’re asking me to respond to things I don’t know about or haven’t seen,” she said.
The chair again admonished her for arguing, but Mr. Gillespie objected, saying Mr. Horner was introducing subjects that are not part of the hearing. He told the tribunal the line of questioning was “creating an atmosphere of bias” for his clients. He noted the Province “does not intend to call a single witness” for their case.
Ms Chen told the tribunal that she does not live in the area; but that the land has, in effect, sat for 20 years waiting for the temple to be built. She said a pilgrimage cannot take place on busy roads, such as Highway 35, which are not conducive to walking. The Buddhists tried, she said, to find the best possible site to offer as close an experience as possible to the temples in China, although on a much smaller scale.
She also answered questions from the panel, explaining that there is a structure to the temple, with each built in a specific place because of its significance to the pilgrimage. Asked if, for example, the route could be changed (away from the proposed turbines), Ms Chen said that was not possible.
The starting point of the pilgrimage, she said, is always the largest temple and the remaining three are routed according to their representations. In this case, the temple on Ski Hill Road is the first. Ms Chen reiterated that if Sumac Ridge goes forward, the Buddhists will abandon plans to develop the remaining three sites.
If the hearing does not encounter delays, wpd and the Province will begin their case this week.
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