Many a battle over rural resources and farm development has been waged between rural neighbours in the past 15 years — ranging from legal challenges surrounding hog barn constructions to the development of gravel pits beneath arable land.
In the latest such battle, a recent ruling by an Ontario Superior Court of Justice would appear to have given credence to a group of rural residents fighting the development of a wind farm near Collingwood, Ont.
The developer, WPD Canada, and its Fairview Wind Project were challenged by residents from Clearview Township, a municipality in Simcoe County. The WPD Canada venture is slated to build eight wind turbines near Stayner, one of the towns that make-up the municipality.
But according to Keith Currie, an executive member with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the ruling handed down last month by Justice Susan Healey does little to clear the confusion. On the surface, some might believe it was a victory for those residents fighting WPD Canada, since the court accepted the complainant’s findings that their property values had been diminished.
“Now, these are unproven claims, and in defence of the company, WPD had said that had it gone to trial, then they would have challenged those claims of diminished property values,” explains Currie.
For the time being, and because it was only a hearing, there was no challenge, so the court accepted the documents presented, he says. “The judge said at the time that they cannot legally challenge a project in the courts until the project actually is approved. The one that’s proposed by WPD Canada is not approved by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE), so they’re still waiting on that ruling.”
Currie acknowledges that there are many people waiting for the outcome of this court challenge, knowing that at some point, someone or some group was going to carry out such legal action.
However, he notes, while Healey said she’d accept the diminished property value assessment by this group opposed to the wind project, in no way, shape or form did she believe there was any evidence existing to prove that the defendant, in this case WPD Canada, was responsible for those diminished values.
“So much as the ‘naysayers’ I’ll call them, may want to say that this is a victory — and it is a small victory perhaps, for them — there’s a long way to go before there’s going to be any kind of court challenge that’s going to be successful,” says Currie. “The wind companies will defend their rights through the legal process, and within the Green Energy Act, to put these projects up, if they’re approved by the Ministry of the Environment.”
This latest outcome doesn’t necessarily open the door on further lawsuits. Unfortunately, however, it does do more to increase the angst in rural Ontario concerning wind projects. For better or worse, it’s coming down to a matter of property rights versus health concerns and aesthetics.
On the one hand, there’s the contention of any landowner to do as he or she sees fit with the land they own. On the other hand, remains the issue: how many wind turbines are too many?
Nor is the OFA taking sides, says Currie. The federation’s role has always been that of facilitator and representative of farmers’ practices. The organization worked with the government in the development of the Green Energy Act, for the benefit of its membership, and always with the understanding that the Act was going to be established.
The key for the OFA, he says, was to ensure its interests were represented, so if a farmer wanted to participate in the building of a bio-digester, a biomass project, a solar project or a wind project, there would be some sort of framework in place.
“We’re not going to tell them whether to build them or not, we’re just providing the opportunity if they so choose,” says Currie. “And we’ve been very up-front about telling people not to sign a contract until you’ve read it, then have your lawyer read it and then sleep on it.”
Despite the contentious nature of these projects, Currie points out that until now, there’s really only been one school of thought on wind projects; that they automatically decrease property values. And they might, he concedes — yet by the same token, they might actually raise them, as well.
— Ralph Pearce is a field editor for Country Guide at St. Marys, Ont.