BERWICK — Should the province appeal a recent court decision that reinstated approval for the Nation Rise wind project, it won’t be at the urging of North Stormont Council.
In a 4-1 vote, the majority rejected Councillor Roxane Villeneuve’s proposed resolution calling on Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister Jeff Yurek to appeal his ministry’s May 13 loss in Divisional Court and reaffirming the township’s status as an “unwilling host” of the 29-turbine Nation Rise development.
With a prepared statement early in the virtual teleconference meeting, Councillor Randy Douglas struck a conciliatory tone in relation to the project, suggesting it was time for North Stormont to move on in the wake of the court ruling that nullified Yurek’s Dec.4, 2019 decision revoking prior approval for the $450-million development — then halfway completed — to protect bat species.
“It’s time to accept what the process has brought us, starting with our last council and highly organized efforts of the Concerned Citizens [of North Stormont] led by Margaret Benke,” said Douglas, acknowledging Benke’s role in appealing the project first to the ministry’s Environmental Review Tribunal and then to the minister himself. “The entire process of tribunals, fundraising, letters to the editor and opinions galore, a great fight was put up by all who tried to stop the project,” observed Douglas, also counting himself as one of those who “did not want the project to proceed.”
However, the councillor cast the issue within the uncertainty of the current COVID-19 pandemic, saying the crisis is likely “in just the second inning of a nine-inning baseball game that could go on into extra innings. We have no idea where that takes us. It’s very, very serious, and as we move into the societal and economic fallout, there are many reasons to be concerned.”
In that light, “government tribunals, ministers, courts will not have the time, interest or resources to consider further challenges to the project, in my opinion,” he opined. “And based on what we hear in the news everyday, where would the dollars come from to cancel and shut this down for good? The dollars need to go for economic development, not the court costs, lawsuit settlements and compensation for shutting it down.
“What we can do in North Stormont is to now accept this project, not only as local residents but as Ontarians and Canadians,” said Douglas. “We can make sure that governments never again impose such divisive decisions on municipalities far away from Toronto … We can treat EDP as partners who we are tough but fair with, and to hold them accountable and to count on our staff and other authorities to protect us.”
“But what’s underway, how could we stop it with so much money having been spent?” he asked, attributing the question to a resident who had called him Sunday night.
Below, the audio proceedings of the North Stormont Council meeting in full.
Again lauding Benke and “all residents who in any way contributed to a valiant fight,” Douglas asserted in conclusion: “As councillors it is our job to accept what the process brought, and to make sure that our municipality and our residents benefit to the highest degree possible from this project.”
Councillor Steve Densham fretted the risk of losing $6-million in total annual payments to the township from the project, over 20 years, in the event council passed the motion and saw developer EDP Renewables (EDPR) prevail in the end anyway. Densham seconded Villeneuve’s motion, thus ensuring it was discussed and went to a vote, but nonetheless opposed it on those grounds.
“If the motion was guaranteed to shut down the project, I would support it, 100 percent,” declared the councillor. “But my fear is, it won’t,” he added, arguing the funding agreement would be jeopardized if the developer ultimately finishes the build. A covenant in that community fund agreement, he pointed out, binds the township to “not interfere or otherwise inhibit any Renewable Energy Approval proceeding, appeal or legal action involving the wind company.”
Densham said the motion’s success would be predicated on a number of “if’s” — if it makes a “positive difference” in persuading the minister to appeal; if the minister does go ahead with the appeal; if that appeal wins; and if that decision is not overturned by Nation Rise in subsequent appeal. “That’s a lot of if’s to bet on for breaking a covenant and basically losing $6-million. I just don’t feel comfortable the way this is worded…. I’d hate to see us lose the appeal, still get the wind turbines, and lose $6-million … that’s like a 10 percent increase on the taxpayers.”
“The vast majority of people I’ve talked to who were not in agreement with the project, there’s a very broad acceptance of the project now,” observed Councillor Douglas, weighing in again during the discussion on Villeneuve’s motion. “There’s also a certain amount of issue fatigue,” he said, adding later, “We need to move on.”
Douglas also recalled being “glad,” in front of a packed council chambers in July 2015, to vote the township as an “unwilling host” — one of two past resolutions on the books officially putting North Stormont in the opposed column.
Council’s rejection of Villeneuve’s motion does not rescind those other declarations.
“We have gone through the process…. It comes a point where a lot of residents in the area … are tired of seeing this mess,” said Deputy Mayor Frank Landry, echoing Douglas’s sentiment. “Let’s accept the facts and move forward in good fashion…. I would not be in favour of starting another process towards pushing Minister Yurek.”
“I ran on a platform that I would do my very best to stop the … project … and that election took place only less than two years ago,” said Councillor Villeneuve, defending her motion and pointing out she won the majority of votes cast. “And almost two years into my mandate, I remain steadfast in not supporting wind turbines in the Township of North Stormont, be it Nation Rise or any other company.” The motion, she said, would make clear to the minister that the township remains an unwilling host, five years after the last resolution to that effect. “In my view, it’s not so bad just to reinforce the fact the we are an unwilling host,” Villeneuve said, suggesting it might just “guarantee” that Yurek goes forward with an appeal. “I think it’s important that we get this done, and that we stand strong, as we did the past two votes on this subject matter.”
Prior to the recorded vote, Mayor Jim Wert said he wished to recognize Villeneuve for the effort. “This has been a very concerning topic and a very passionate topic, but at the same time, I think there’s been a very credible argument put forward by Councillor Douglas about where we’re at with this process,” said Wert. “You’re absolutely right, we voted twice to be unwilling hosts. But we now have in-depth legal documents that are signed, that now put us in a partnership, essentially, with EDP[R].”
The project, the mayor offered, “will be the legacy of the [provincial] government of the day, and time will tell as to whether it was relevant. But I certainly feel we’ve got to move on, and I think we’ll survive this, and I think come out of it as strong as possible.”
During Council’s time for public questions — a feature of sessions in North Stormont — the politicians felt the fury of two regular council observers dead set against the project.
“To put it very mildly, I’m very disappointed of your non-support for Roxane’s motion,” said Ruby Mekker of Finch on the line. “I have reminded you frequently of the thousands of people, multiple times, through petitions, saying they do not want this project to proceed.”
Among other things, she asked council if they were willing to impose fire suppression equipment in the turbines — a costly add-on currently not planned by the developer. Densham said earlier he intended to continue pushing for that measure, though it earned him no kudos with Mekker, who told the councillor he should be “ashamed.”
“The whole batch of you just lost my vote,” declared Ernie Coumont of Finch.
No other comment was offered by the public.