Wheatland County approves solar farm

·3 min read

Wheatland County council has approved a new solar farm, in a reversal of a previous decision.

The proposed 20.1-megawatt commercial solar facility, called the East Strathmore Solar Farm, is sited about 15 kilometres east of Strathmore and south of Highway 1. It received approval from the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC), the province’s utility regulator, on Sept. 25, 2020.

Under Wheatland’s land use bylaw, the county is divided into land use districts, in which different uses are allowed. The project area was designated as agricultural, in which solar farms are not permitted. As a result, the area had to be redesignated for the project to proceed, requiring a vote by council.

The first time Wheatland County considered this redesignation, on Jan. 12, it was to change the agricultural land to an energy district. This land use district was added by the county’s land use bylaw in 2019 for large wind and solar facilities. But hearing opposition to the project from neighbouring landowners, the motion to redesignate the lands failed by a vote of 6-1, with only Reeve Amber Link voting in favour.

However, given provincial law, council was essentially forced to support the project. Under Section 619 of the Municipal Government Act (MGA), approvals granted by the AUC prevail over municipal plans or land use bylaws.

Thus, the proponent would likely have been successful in appealing the county’s decision to vote against the project. An appeal would go to the Municipal Government Board (MGB), a provincial quasi-judicial body. This would result in legal costs to the county, with little hope for victory given Section 619 of the MGA. This bind was identified by Link during the Jan. 12 meeting.

Wheatland council held a special meeting of council on Jan. 19. During a closed session, council decided to rescind the decision and consider the land redesignation again at a future meeting.

The project land redesignated was considered again by council on March 2 but differed from the first consideration. Instead of a change to an energy district, it took the form of establishing a direct control district for the project, requiring a bylaw. Under the county’s land use bylaw, creating a direct control district allows the establishment of specific site regulations on the use and development of land or buildings therein.

One regulation in the direct control district is the establishment of a 175-metre setback along the northern property line to address the concerns by residents. This setback distance, which the proponents have committed to, is an increase from that in the AUC approval. As a result of this change, the project will be 290 metres and 350 metres away from the closest two residences, respectively. Another is the establishment of a vegetative buffer along the north project boundary to shield the view of the solar farm from the residents to the north.

Prior to the vote, a public hearing on the bylaw was held, during which proponents and opponents of the solar farm were both heard. But the direct control bylaw unanimously passed later in the meeting. Council then approved a development permit for the project, given it complies with the AUC decision and the direct control land use district.

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times