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County uses new mapping tool to show preferred sites for future solar and wind development projects

“A tool like this could be precedent-setting in the Calgary region,” Boscariol told committee members.

ROCKY VIEW COUNTY - In a continuing effort to have more local control over the siting of new potential solar and wind development projects, Rocky View County (RVC) has commissioned a Municipal Land Use Suitability Tool (M-LUST) report that uses GIS technology to help pinpoint the most appropriate locations for future industrial-scale solar farms or wind power plants.

The final report, which is the product of a year’s work in consultation between Rocky View County, Mount Royal University’s Miistakis Institute, and the Old Man River Regional Services Commission, was presented to RVC’s Governance Committee meeting on July 11.

The M-LUST report used satellite mapping with the County’s database and expertise to eliminate areas for consideration based on factors such as lands that fall under provincial jurisdiction and other no-go areas. For the report’s purposes, these included any local forest areas.

The report also took into account proximity to high-population areas within the county, sites of historical and cultural significance, and areas of high ecological sensitivity. It further ranked remaining areas based on higher agricultural value and whether or not a land area was previously disturbed or still in natural condition.

The result was a series of colour-coded maps that determined the greatest suitability for the siting of these potential solar and wind power projects. 

After revealing the M-LUST maps to the Governance Committee, Old Man Regional Services Commission planner Diane Horvath attempted to articulate for committee members how the data could be used to help guide the development of future solar and wind projects in the county.

Horvath suggested three possible approaches Rocky View County might take. The first approach would have the County actively direct and focus such developments to the areas identified in the M-LUST report as part of its land use bylaws.

By putting it on the books that these areas were preferred and would be supported by the County as part of the development permit process, it would hopefully encourage solar and wind companies to actively seek out opportunities in those areas with some assurance they will be approved and could avoid a further fight at the Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC).

“This would see development encouraged in those areas identified as more suitable, which would hopefully limit the conflicts with more important agricultural, ecological, and cultural lands within the municipality,” Horvath explained.

However, she said there was a potential downside this option may cluster utility-scale solar projects in particular areas where there may be “unintentional impacts.” 

The second option Horvath presented for the committee’s consideration is that the County could take a role in actively encouraging new investments in solar or wind power in its jurisdiction by using the M-LUST data maps as a guide. Horvath did not go into specifics, but the suggestion was that the County may consider developing something akin to a business park or land use designation in these areas specifically geared toward solar and wind investment, making it a preferred destination for investors and giving the County greater control over development.

“The M-LUST provides an opportunity to promote solar development in areas that are considered the highest valued lands from a municipal perspective for this kind of development,” Horvath summarized.

However, she warned, there is also a potential downside to this strategy. 

“The disadvantage to this, of course, is there could be conflicts between (these developments and) traditional land users,” she said.

The third option Horvath presented was simply to maintain the status quo. That, she suggested, would mean solar and wind investors would still be seeking to make deals with individual land users. If denied a development permit by Rocky View County, they would continue to receive permissions from the Alberta Utilities Commission without any local control over siting.

That being said, Horvath reminded committee members of what the County does have control over: setbacks, landscaping and buffering, fencing, access, heavy haul agreements, development agreements, weed management plans, soil management plans, stripping and grading, fire and emergency response, staging  and laydown yards.

Some local control could be exercised over these projects by any of these means, according to Horvath, even if Rocky View County cannot block the development in the first place.

After the presentation, Governance Committee member and Deputy Reeve Sunny Samra asked if the consultants had taken into account the possibility of RVC using reclamation bonds to ensure the projects would be cleaned up properly when they came to their end of life.

Horvath replied the jury was still out on that question because no municipality had yet tested their ability to do so at the AUC.

“My understanding is in the decision given to the MD of Taber, they clearly said the municipality had the power through their land use bylaw to take reclamation (bonds), but chose not to,” she said. “They also (at AUC) chose not to.

“The question is if Taber had placed the bond, would the AUC have removed it or not? At this point, no one has placed the bond yet to test that.”

Committee chair and Division 2 Coun. Don Kochan asked if the AUC would respect the maps generated by the M-LUST if the County cited these documents as part of their land use bylaw in the development permit process.

The data would not automatically carry weight with the AUC, but would give the County a scientifically grounded basis to strengthen their hand in an appeal with the provincial body, responded Matt Boscariol, RVC’s director of Community Services

“If we are to participate at AUC hearings, we would have some back-up data to provide in our defence,” he explained.

The M-LUST report could also be a strong data point for consideration of a larger regional solar and wind development strategy in the greater metropolitan Calgary area, according to Boscariol.

“A tool like this could be precedent-setting in the Calgary region,” he stated.

After hearing this response, the Governance Committee unanimously adopted a motion that the County incorporate the data from the M-LUST to be included in the Municipal Development Plan review process for future land use policy development.

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