Township Requires Solar Farms To Pay A Fair Share

Rideau Lakes Township in Ontario has introduced a development charges by-law that will apply to seven proposed solar generating facilities and could raise as much as $500,000 for the municipality. It is the first by-law of its kind in the Province according to the township’s Mayor Ron Holman. If other Ontario municipalities enact similar by-laws it could potentially impact up to a hundred or more proposals for solar electric installations.

The townships new by-law imposes a $3,584 fee per 500 KW of generation capacity for large solar operations (10 MW) charged at the time a building permit is issued. The amount of the development charge is based on a study by Clark Consulting Services who were engaged by the Township in the past to establish fees for commercial and residential properties.

The development charge is a response by the municipality to the exclusion of solar generating facilities from the provisions of the Ontario Planning Act following introduction of Bill 150, Green Energy Act in 2009. The Act took away municipality authority with respect to all planning provisions, rezoning, site plan control, planning fees, and routes of appeal and left them with only the ability to comment on applications for solar generating facilities.

“Municipalities are permitted under the municipal act to charge miscellaneous fees such as entrance permits but they are limited in scope and do not address the impact of this kind of development,” said the Mayor. “That is why we are seeking development charges under the Development Charges Act.”

The solar companies have made a deal with the Province that in effect has made them “exempt from taxation due to low assessed values and exempt from the planning legislation” said Holman. If there is a fire on site or a police issue (on one of the solar farms) then it is the townships responsibility to respond yet the companies have not contributed toward future cost or risk. There is also wear and tear on the road infrastructure particularly during construction.

“We are in favour of green energy, we are just protecting the interest of the residents and we want this new use (solar farms) to pay a fair share for locating in our township for the next 20 years” explained the Mayor. The rational behind imposing the development charge is “to make the solar companies into good corporate citizens,” he said.

In the townships experience there is only a minor increase in property taxes for new solar farm properties that does not adequately account for the costs associated with the developments according to Holman. The township doesn’t have information about the impact of the generating facilities on the value of adjacent property and the subsequent effect on taxes.

Nine 10MW Solar Electric Generating Facilities

Located between Ottawa and Kingston, Rideau Lakes Township is a picturesque and primarily rural municipality bordered by the Rideau Waterway and prime cottage country for nearby Ottawa. A hydroelectric corridor that cuts through the township and abundant marginal farmland has made it an attractive location for large solar generating facilities. The township has two completed 10MW solar farms and seven pending Provincial approvals that already hold licenses under the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) program.

A 10MW solar farm is not to be mistaken with a household scale roof mounted solar installation or a back yard solar array that the Mayor emphasized the township does not want to discourage. Nor do they come close in scale to commercial roof top installations one of the largest in North America being a 3.3-acre installation on top of a Federal Express depot in New Jersey.

These solar generating facilities, at the scale of 10 MW and up, occupy 40 to 50 acres that is built out with about 140,000 to 180,000 solar panels from one property line to the next and cost in the area of $50-million. They are gated, fenced and equipped with security cameras and motion sensor flood lighting. There is often a requirement to build access roads, onsite roads for maintenance purposes and underground cable for connecting to the Provincial electricity grid.

In appearance they are more akin to an industrial park than the bucolic image one associates with farms. Unlike their renewable energy cousin the wind farm, they are not subject to a 1,500 ft. setback from a neighbor and could conceivably wrap around or immediately abut a residential property.

A difference between solar facilities and most industrial land uses is that once constructed they are unoccupied and for the duration of their 20-40 year life span require little human interaction much like other electrical utility buildings.

Northland Power Solar, EDF EN Canada Inc. and Sun Edison are three companies with licenses to build solar facilities in Rideau Lakes Township.

Proposals for solar farms have tended to cluster where the conditions are most suitable for the generating facilities to locate. Northland Power has three farms proposed within a 3km radius between the town of Crosby and Newboro near the Big Rideau Lake that will occupy about 120 acres of marginal farmland. The hydro corridor and a Hydro station are within a kilometer of the sites.

Province Should Give Back Site Plan Control

The Province should give back some of the powers under the Planning Act as it applies to solar farms according the Mayor Ron Holman, “municipal site plan approval would be a positive step”. Currently municipalities have no say in where the solar facilities are located or site plan control that can be used to mitigate the impact of ‘unpleasant’ land uses on adjacent properties.

“Some people may like looking at the black solar panels and other do not like looking at them,” explained Holman. For those who do not, constructing a berm around the solar farm is one solution the township could consider if it had site plan control. Another solution would be to have a setback from residential properties similar to that required of wind farms proposed the Mayor.

At the first two solar farms in the township there were ground water problems experienced by adjacent property owners. This was attributed to the thousands of holes dug to install the solar panels. While the water problems eventually cleared up Mayor Holman thinks ground water testing should be a routine part of the application process.

The Province of Ontario requires extensive reporting by solar companies including natural habitat reports, de-commissioning, water and soil testing as a condition of receiving approval to proceed. Solar companies are also required to hold a minimum of two public meeting for each application.

The Canadian Solar Industry Association of Canada (CANSIA), whose representative did not return Property Biz Canada’s calls, has attended the Rideau Lakes Township meetings regarding the development charges and according to the Mayor submitted a ‘legal letter’ on behalf of a solar company at the time the development by-law was approved by the township council. An appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board may follow.

Other municipalities have also shown an interest in Rideau Lakes Township new by-law.

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