Wheatland County rejects solar farm but will revisit issue

·3 min read

A land redesignation bylaw for a proposed solar farm in Wheatland County was rejected by Wheatland County council, but following a special meeting of council, the project will be considered again during the next council meeting at the latest.

During the Jan. 12 regular county council meeting, council considered a motion to adopt second reading of a bylaw to redesignate 160 acres for a proposed 20.1-megawatt commercial solar facility located east of Strathmore. The redesignation was necessary because the lands are currently agricultural, but as per the county’s land use bylaw, solar developments must be sited on lands designated as “energy district,” a category added in 2019.

However, the motion failed by a vote of 6-1, with Reeve Amber Link the only councillor to vote in favour of the motion.

Despite the council’s ruling, its hands may ultimately be tied because of provincial law. Section 619 of the provincial Municipal Government Act (MGA) provides that any approval granted by the AUC prevails over any statutory plan or land use bylaw. It also establishes that when a municipality receives a land use bylaw amendment and the application is consistent with the AUC approval, the municipality must approve the application.

The project received AUC approval on Sept. 25, 2020.

Prior to the council meeting, a public hearing for the bylaw was held via teleconference, during which letters from several landowners opposed to the project were read. However, Section 619(4) of the MGA requires that the hearing not address matters already discussed during the AUC application review process, which included many of the issues brought forward.

Several of the councillors said during the meeting that despite the constraints of the MGA, they intended to vote in opposition to the motion in principle.

“They (AUC) claim they figured what public interest is, but I don’t think so,” said Tom Ikert, Division 4 Councillor. “We are asked to rubber stamp something that a bunch of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats say is fine – but this has been backdoored to us.”

Despite voting in favour of the bylaw, Link spoke of the difficulty of that decision. “This is extremely frustrating, because to a huge extent, the jurisdiction of municipal government has been subjugated by Section 619 of the MGA,” she said during the meeting.

The proponent, Dan Eaton, has appealed the county’s decision to the Municipal Governing Board (MGB), an independent board established under the MGA that makes decisions about land planning and assessment matters, according to his lawyer, Terri-Lee Oleniuk of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.

These appeals are costly, with some municipalities paying upwards of $500,000 to participate in similar hearings, said Link. This includes legal costs and land use planning when required.

Given Section 619 of the MGA and related past decisions, the likelihood the MGB would rule against the council’s decision is near certain. “I cannot find any legal precedent where we would have any hope in taking that route,” she said. “I’m not willing to throw tax dollars at a losing fight. I am willing to fight the province, but that has to be done through advocacy.”

An MGA hearing looks to be avoided, because during a special meeting of council held on Jan. 19, the potential repercussions of defeating the land designation were discussed in a closed session, Link told the Times in an email. Two resolutions were passed during this closed session: council directed administration to prepare a direct control district for the project at the earliest possible date (no later than March 2) and bring a development permit application for consideration at the same meeting, and that administration request the applicant to provide a complete development permit application no later than Jan. 22.

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times