The Ministry of Natural Resources thinks a wind farm planned near Port Ryerse can be good for endangered barn owls.
The ministry proposes to grant Boralex Inc. a special permit allowing the energy company to construct four industrial wind turbines on condition that the project benefit the rare birds.
The ministry delayed the project’s development for five months this winter while it investigated barn owl sightings in Port Ryerse last summer.
On April 9, the MNR made public its proposal for a special permit, the first of its kind in Ontario.
The public has until May 11 to comment before the ministry makes its final decision about granting the permit.
The provincial Endangered Species Act protects barn owls.
Although the birds are common south of Lake Erie, they are rare in Ontario.
The Port Ryerse sightings last summer were the first in the province in about five years.
Some wind farm opponents had hoped the owls’ presence might lead to a moratorium on the wind farm project.
The special permit would end those hopes.
The permit would require the company to improve circumstances for the owls, for example by increasing the number of owls or by increasing their nesting or hunting areas.
Among several ideas for Boralex, the MNR suggests the company create a four-hectare (10-acre) protected habitat for barns owls to forage, nest and roost.
Opponents are looking for owl or bird experts to challenge granting the permit, Suzanne Andrews, spokesperson for Port Ryerse residents opposed to the wind farm, said in an interview.
A wind farm helping barn owls defies common sense, she said.
Area wind farms already have affected local birds’ migration patterns, she said.
A pair of eagles nested near Port Ryerse last year after wind turbines disturbed their former home.
And last fall, numbers of sandhill cranes and blue herons unexpectedly appeared in Port Ryerse, presumably because their migration patterns had shifted.
The Ministry of Environment approved the Port Ryerse Wind Farm project last August.
Four turbines are planned to be built in fields east of Port Ryerse, south of Woolley and Gilbert roads and north of cottages in Avalon Park overlooking Lake Erie.
Development is currently on hold while the Environmental Review Tribunal hears two appeals based on health and environmental concerns.
The hearing process took a break over the winter while the MNR looked into the barn owl sightings.
The process was further delayed about a month after Boralex found it had failed to notify 180 property owners about the appeal hearings.
Boralex says it has now met the rules to notify these property owners.
Last week the tribunal kick-started the process again, scheduling five days starting June 3 to hear the appeal based on health concerns.
The appeal based on environmental concerns won’t take place until after it’s known if Boralex has received the special permit to benefit barn owls.
Because the permit will be the first of its kind in Ontario, the MNR will carefully consider the public’s comments.
The tribunal hopes to rule on the health and environmental appeals by late August.
Mrs. Andrews urges tribunal officials to visit the wind farm site to learn what the area looks like.
Nothing requires the tribunal to view in person the sites discussed at hearings.
“It’s all done with numbers and GPS positions,” Mrs. Andrews said.
Fighting the wind farm project is difficult, she said.
At hearings, the onus is on opponents to prove Boralex has done something wrong.
That’s hard when the project involves thousands of pages of documents.
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