Proposed cell tower casts shadow over future of Events for Life charity

·8 min read

A telecommunications tower is proposed for a rural area in the Town of the Blue Mountains (TBM) on a farmyard that hosts a day program for individuals living with disabilities.

In early December, TBM’s planning and development department received an application from Shared Tower Corporation for a telecommunications tower with a planned height of 65-meters to be located at 67441 33rd Sideroad in Thornbury.

The proponent has proposed a self-sustained, lattice-style tower with a galvanized steel equipment cabinet at the base of the tower.

The site was selected in order to improve service on the west side of Thornbury and rural areas to the west of Lora Bay and north of Highway 26.

The proposed site for the tower is designated as special agricultural and sits adjacent to Beaver Creek Farm.

Beaver Creek Farm is located at 67547 33rd Sideroad in Thornbury and owned by Mike Hutchings.

With over 90-acres of forest and farmland, Hutchings operates what he refers to as a bit of a petting zoo, with several different kinds of animals on the property. In recent years, his main focus has been hay and raising lambs.

But it is also the home of Events for Life (EFL), a non-profit charity offering educational, recreational and social day programs for developmentally-challenged youth and adults living in Southern Georgian Bay.

After learning about EFL, Hutchings decided to donate the use of his farm to EFL.

“I offered them our farm for their EFL centre,” Hutchings explained. “The farmhouse would be their new meeting centre, as well as the offices for the EFL staff. The two-bay garage would be converted into a woodworking shop to make crafts, which they sell through the local businesses here in town. We also have tennis courts for games and forest trails.”

The farm has been a good fit for EFL programs.

“We are the only program in the area that serves individuals with developmental disabilities,” said Catherine Butler, chair of EFL.

“Beaver Creek Farm has been an ideal location for us to implement our program, and to allow our participants to grow friendships and learn new skills,” she continued.

Hutchings said, for him, the greatest reward in hosting EFL is seeing the change that takes place with the program's participants.

“Many who were severely introverted are now smiling, happy kids living lives as they should, among friends with the purpose. Trust me when I say, being on the farm with this group is good for the soul,” he said.

Over the years Hutchings has upgraded areas of the farm to aid the organization’s participants, even building a wheelchair-accessible washroom and a ramp.

“Mike has made numerous changes to his site for us that we continue to benefit from every time we're there,” Butler added.

Butler’s 27-year-old son Thomas, has been a participant in the EFL program since its conception.

“When Thomas finished school at 21, which was six years ago, there was really no programming once he finished high school. And Thomas is non-verbal, so employment was going to be difficult as well,” she explained.

She added that the organization has also become somewhat of a support group for the parents of EFL participants.

“We have a waiting list of 10, we have over 30 volunteers. We have four full-time staff members, and two university students now working with us. EFL has become a second home to all our participants and their families,” she said.

The tower proposal has cast a shadow over the farm and should it be approved, it could be the end of EFL's use of the property.

As per its planning procedure, TBM held a public meeting on Jan. 28 in regards to the proposal. More than 50 comments were received from members of the public expressing their concerns about the selected location for the tower.

Concerns included the impact on EFL, impacts on wildlife, esthetics, as well as a number of individuals who expressed concern around the proponent not having any cellular carriers onboard to use the tower prior to building it.

According to Dom Claros, representative for Shared Tower Corp. the proponent does have written interest from one national cellular carrier for the proposed tower but did not provide any further detail.

Hutchings says his main concern is in regards to the possible radiofrequency electromagnetic fields that may come from the proposed tower and the impact that it could potentially have on EFL’s vulnerable participants.

“We have grave health concerns over the impact of a 200-foot cell tower being constructed so close to the EFL centre. The truth is that the activities which are currently ongoing are bringing the kids within 150-metres of that tower,” he said. “Several of the EFL participants have sophisticated medical implants which they depend upon.”

Claros explained that every wireless Internet provider is governed by Safety Code 6, which strictly monitors electromagnetic fields.

“Numerous studies over the years have shown the safety of the equipment that will be placed on the tower. These providers must provide third-party reports to Industry Canada, in order to have their equipment approved for placement,” Claros said. “It is very strict. Any proponent that does not adhere to Safety Code 6 would be at risk of losing their license.”

However, Hutchings and TBM council members note that there has been very little research conducted on the impact these electromagnetic fields could have on vulnerable populations or those who have cochlear implants.

Hutchings says it's a risk he is just not willing to take. And, if the proposal moves forward and the tower is installed at this location, he said he will ask EFL to leave Beaver Creek Farm.

“Please understand that I am not opposed to cell towers. I understand the need. What I am opposed to is a cell tower that is being built this close to an active EFL centre that is doing so much in this community,” he said.

Butler says Beaver Creek Farm has been an unbelievable home base for EFL for the past few years and finding another property like it will be next to impossible.

“As an organization, we completely understand and support Mike,” she said. “However, for us to go out into the community to find another place just like Beaver Creek would be next to impossible. There is nothing like it.”

Claros says the proponent is open to working with local residents to find an amicable solution for the location of the tower.

“For us, the most important thing is working with the residents in order to present a proposal that everyone can support,” Claros said. “In my experience, we've never had a situation where we have not been able to work with local residents in order to achieve some kind of outcome that's favourable for everyone.”

However, area residents, including Hutchings and Butler say they haven’t heard anything from the proponent ahead of the public meeting.

“The proponent has not approached us; we have not heard a word. This proposal went in without any discussion whatsoever,” Hutchings said.

Upon conclusion of the public meeting, TBM staff will be asking the proponent to provide more information for their planning application.

“We've asked the applicant to confirm any relationships or any commitments from any major service providers to use this facility if constructed,” said Travis Sandberg, planner with TBM.

Final approval for the telecommunications tower sits within the jurisdiction of the federal government, through Industry Canada.

“In order for this application to move forward at the federal level, the municipality essentially has to send their concurrence or their okay to Industry Canada,” said Sandberg.

“The municipality also has the ability to not confirm concurrence for the facility, in which case, the municipal consultation aspect of Industry Canada's approval process wouldn't be satisfied,” he continued.

Public comments in regards to the application will not be sent directly to Industry Canada, however the council can choose to include certain aspects of the public’s concern in its concurrence.

In an effort to have his message delivered to the decision-makers, Hutchings has written several letters to TBM council, local Members of Parliament as well as Grey County.

“EFL do a really great job at this; they serve not only the Town of the Blue Mountains, but people in Owen Sound and other parts of Grey County, as well as Collingwood,” said TBM Mayor, Alar Soever.

“This is a very important facility and it is not easy for them to just pick up and move, especially with the people they serve, any changes can be difficult, even traumatic. It's well supported within our community and with the neighbouring communities as well,” said TBM Deputy Mayor, Rob Potter. “I think another location would be a better idea.”

At this point, Shared Tower Corp. will be responsible for addressing all of the comments received at the public meeting, as well as the technical comments received from public agencies and town staff through the Development Review Committee process.

There is currently no timeline for when this file will return to the council table. Staff have noted this file will only be brought back for council consideration once they have enough information from the proponent to make a recommendation".

“I am imploring you to consider alternative locations, such that we're able to provide better cell reception, while still allowing EFL, the Girl Guides, the schools and everyone else to utilize this farm for what we have designed it to be used for,” Hutchings said. “In truth, this farm is a real jewel for this town.”

Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca