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Vulcan County’s planning commission approves development permits for Buffalo Hills wind farm project

Vulcan County’s Municipal Planning Commission (MPC) approved Sept. 15 development permits, with conditions, for wind turbines for ABO Wind’s 500-megawatt Buffalo Hills project near Lomond.

The MPC voted 4-0 in favour of a motion approving a total of 81 development permits, for wind turbines with no waiver requirements, waiver requirements from developed and undeveloped road allowances, waiver requirements from property lines, and waiver requirements from property lines and road setbacks.

ABO has maintained a minimum 800-metre setback from all residences, wrote Anne Erickson, manager of development services, in a report prepared for the Sept. 15 meeting.

ABO’s application reads that the Buffalo Plains Wind Farm will have a maximum generation capacity of 514.6 megawatts, consisting of 83 wind turbines with a nominal capacity of 6.2 megawatts. Two proposed wind turbine locations were in Lomond’s urban fringe and were not included in the Sept. 15 application before the MPC.

The turbines have a hub height of 115 metres, rotor diameter of 170 metres, and an overall height to blade tip of 200 metres.

The project includes roughly 93 kilometres of collector lines, with 6.6 kilometres proposed above ground. All collector lines are proposed underground, except for the locations within the County road allowances, which have already been approved by Vulcan County council.

The planning commission spent several hours Sept. 15 discussing the application behind closed doors before carrying a motion just before 4 p.m. approving the development permits.

Shane Cockwill, who chairs the MPC, said the planning commission members empathize with the local residents’ legitimate concerns about the project and did their best to address their concerns “to the degree we had an influence,” he said.

But the MPC’s jurisdiction was limited in its jurisdiction, to matters such as roads and setbacks, said Cockwill.

“We were bound legally to only decide a few things,” he said.

Wind farm projects mostly come under the jurisdiction of the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC), Cockwill pointed out.

Cockwill said he hopes the AUC hears the concerns of residents and that those concerns carry weight when the decision on the project is made.

Before still needs the AUC to green light the $500-million project. If approved, the company says construction would begin next spring.

The AUC application is under review, with an online hearing scheduled for Oct. 19-29. A decision is expected in “winter 2021-2022,” according to the AUC’s website.

The MPC placed a total of 28 conditions with the development permit approvals.

Among the conditions placed on the MPC’s approval of the development permits, the applicant commits to creating a Turbine Shut-Off Protocol, prior to operations for when aerial spraying operations are impacted, reads the MPC’s decision. This protocol would include the direct phone number for the site supervisor and the remote operations control centre, a step-by-step process to identify which turbines should be shut-off or rotated, a confirmation of dates and times for planned aerial spraying activities, a process to ensure the site is safe and secure for spraying to occur, and a process to ensure that the applicant is notified when spraying is completed.

Another condition reads that, where aerial spraying is no longer possible due to turbine construction on non-participating lands within the project area, a mitigation plan shall be developed by the applicant to address spraying alternatives and submitted to the director of agricultural services for approval.

But Lavinia Henderson with the group Lomond Opposing Wind Projects said pilots are not going to risk their lives to spray fields close to the turbines.

“Several farmers will never be able to aerial spray, whether there’s a turbine shutoff protocol or not,” she said during a phone interview Thursday.

Henderson was disappointed the MPC approved every setback waiver.

“Where does good planning come into place there?” she said.

Henderson was critical of the layout of the wind turbines, saying the density of the wind farm is too great and the placement of the turbines is “helter-skelter.”

In a news release provided Sept. 15 to the Advocate, Lomond Opposing Wind Projects stated that the key issue for the community is that renewable energy projects “must be fair to the residents that will bear the burden of constant intrusion into their lives and have their farming businesses affected with no compensation, except for the limited number of landowners who have chosen to lease to the wind company.”

“The proposed project has a high density of turbines and will completely dominate the historic landscape and views between McGregor Lake and Lomond if constructed as proposed,” reads the news release. “The cumulative effects of noise, the effects of unusual environmental stimuli for people with autism (including a child living in Lomond) and people with health concerns, and the effects on birds including significant raptor populations are also key concerns that are not being addressed to the satisfaction of local residents.”

Erickson noted in her report that Vulcan County has limited authority over wind farm approvals.

Alberta’s Municipal Government Act states that a municipality considering an application may not address matters already decided by the AUC.

“So, for example, if the AUC addresses items such as size of towers or megawatts, setbacks to residential dwellings, environmental matters, noise levels, etc., which is typical, the municipality cannot address these issues or impose different standards through development permit conditions,” wrote Erickson.