Study of Visual Impact of Wind Turbines Is Underway
By Jack Ellis
A study into the visual impacts of industrial wind turbine developments is now underway in Tiny. On March 31st, Township Council authorized staff to contract with the University of Guelph to provide a team of Landscape Architecture professors and graduate students from their School of Environmental Design and Rural Development to go ahead with the study. Work started in April, and the study is expected to be completed by April of 2009.
The study will be done in three phases, and provides for a Public Information Session to be held in the first phase, likely on a weekend in August, where there will be a supporting visual presentation outlining the key issues from the literature and policy review, the mapping of the Township and the impact assessment methodology. Comments from the public will be received and recorded.
This study has resulted from over a year of concern by Council and citizens alike regarding the potential impacts of large wind turbines in the natural landscape, and their compatibility with the Township’s Official Plan.
Back in March 2007, Council adopted a report by the then-CAO/Clerk, Ruth Coursey, stating that “it is the current position of this Municipality that it is not supportive of the location of wind power generation facilities classed as “Category B” electrical projects under Ontario Regulation 116/01, anywhere within the Municipality, as these types of projects do not comply with the general intent and purpose of the Official Plan.”
At that time, Council had been concerned with the draft Environmental Study Report submitted by Ventus Energy Inc. which proposed to build six huge turbines in a wooded area of Tiny, right next to an environmentally sensitive area and the Nipissing Ridge. (This proposal has been the subject of earlier articles in The Tiny Cottager, #30, Fall 2007; #27, Spring 2006; #26, Fall 2005; #25, Spring 2005, available at www.tinycottager.org)
This proposal by Ventus could be seen as “Phase 1” of a wave of proposals for wind farms that could spread more widely across Tiny Township, even though the winds in our area are not as favourable for power generation as in those areas of Ontario where wind farms have already been built.
The Ontario government has adopted a Policy Statement that sets out ambitious targets for generating power in Ontario from industrial wind turbines but, unlike governments in Europe, for example, they have not designated any agreed-upon areas in which they should be built, and to which they should be restricted.
Ontario leaves the vital question of choosing the turbine locations up to the wind developers, and controls it only through an environmental self-assessment process that is done by the developers. Of course, this has led to an “anything goes” situation where local municipalities and property owners must fend for themselves, whether they favour wind turbines or not. Lots of “Davids”, few “Goliaths”.
On top of this lack of responsibility for designating wind farm areas, Ontario is now considering legislation that would completely remove municipal planning controls over energy projects.
In light of these actions, Council was advised that a simple resolution, such as they passed in March 2007, would not have much legal force to keep turbine developments under at least some control. A well-documented Amendment to the Official Plan would be able to express and exert the wishes of the municipality, which action some Ontario communities have already taken.
While there is general agreement in environmental planning about how to assess many of the environmental impacts of wind turbines, there is as yet no consistent and widely accepted methodology for assessing their visual impacts. Tiny’s Council sought ways to remedy this situation.
In September 2007, Council directed Ruth Coursey to seek consultants to design and manage such a study. She reported that: “The proposed visual impact study is very important to ensure that the potential effects of industrial wind turbine projects are fully addressed in our Municipality. There is also the possibility of being involved in a leading edge pilot project, which could apply province wide. By working co-operatively with other interested participants, we can demonstrate the value of joint projects which include a full compliment of affected agencies and parties.”
She sent out a request for proposals from private sector consultants, but this yielded only one proposal, which was not an acceptable one. Progress towards getting the study underway went on hold for several months.
Tiny’s planners were aware that other municipalities had already taken such steps. The Municipality of Grey Highlands and the Town of the Blue Mountains were two local examples. Contacting their colleagues, they turned up the University of Guelph as a source of expertise in the study of visual impacts, and sought a proposal from them.
On March 31, Tiny’s new CAO/Clerk, Doug Luker, recommended to Council that the University of Guelph be given approval to conduct a study of the visual impacts of industrial wind turbines in Tiny. The Council passed this recommendation by a unanimous vote.
The team from the University of Guelph is led by Professors Jim Taylor and Rob Corry, both in the Landscape Architecture program. They are supervising a team of graduate students who are assisting in background research, fieldwork and data analysis. Jim and Rob had earlier headed up a team that did a Visual Impact Analysis in Grey Highlands, the results of which are already passed in draft form as Official Plan Amendments.
They have also recently done a generic study of wind turbine impacts on rural areas for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
Jim Taylor has studied for many decades the impacts of pipelines, highways, powerlines, and now, wind turbines in the rural landscape. The Grey Highlands study identified three zones of suitability for turbines: one where wind farms are forbidden because of their scenic impact; another where they would need further assessment before proceeding; and a zone where the normal environmental impact assessment process could suffice.
The study team will report to township staff, who will manage the project. Since the township’s 2008 planning budget did not include funds for the study, CORT (Coalition of Residents – Tiny)/Wind steering committee has advanced money from fund-raising activities. Other participants will be invited to participate in the study and contribute funding. So far, both Environment Canada and Ventus have shown interest.
It is hoped that the Guelph University study in Tiny will show the way for other municipalities across Ontario and elsewhere to conduct professional and defensible visual impact studies. The Fall 2008 Tiny Cottager will contain an update on the progress of the study.