Court dismisses judicial review to halt council-approved Epcor’s solar farm project in the river valley, project moving ahead with completion pegged for spring

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A court application to overturn Edmonton city council’s approval of Epcor’s planned 51-acre solar farm in the river valley has been quashed.

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In a decision released Thursday, Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice George Fraser found the judicial review brought forward by river valley activists to be moot because the project had already gone through the proper approvals and couldn’t be overturned.

The 45,000-panel solar farm project next to Epcor’s E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant has long been a bone of contention in the city, with several days of heated public hearings in front of city council on the matter. The solar farm is projected to generate enough renewable energy to power the operations of the plant and reduce the utility’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent with the capacity to produce 12 megawatts of electrical power.

Council ultimately approved rezoning for the development through a split 7-6 vote in October 2020 . But the Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition challenged the decision, launching a judicial review arguing that council didn’t follow the proper procedures in outright determining if the river valley location was essential for the project. The judicial review application was heard last November.

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In his decision, Fraser said this determination would only be required if the project were a major public facility or if the city were putting money into the project and he found neither factor to be met. The coalition also took issue with council’s focus on the financial benefits when making the decision and not specifically pointing out social or environmental impacts. But Fraser said it’s not his role to determine how councillors should be basing their vote and it is up to them to weigh all of the factors as they choose.

“Councillors are elected politicians. It is likely that many factors are considered prior to any vote. These may include the wishes of the voters who elected the councillor and may also include the councillor’s view of what is best for the community,” Fraser said in his decision.

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“It may be true that the financial benefits of the project were given priority over the other considerations. There is nothing in the bylaw that requires an equal weighting of the factors. The councillors were free to assign whatever weighting he or she wanted to each of the factors. If the electorate does not like the councillor’s perceived weighting, they can reflect their displeasure at the ballot box.”

Environmental concerns with the project swirled around the council debate with an assessment projecting 48.6 acres of wildlife habitat would be eliminated as a result of the project. The solar farm and the fencing around it is also expected to reduce connectivity for wildlife and increase the risk of death or injury as a result of collisions into the panels and endangerment.

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Responding to the decision, coalition chairwoman Kristine Kowalchuk said the organization is disappointed and considering all its options, including an appeal.

“The decision wording does, however, make clear that this issue is a serious one. The issue underscores the need for the City of Edmonton to undertake administrative changes to better protect our river valley,” Kowalchuk said in a statement.

Despite the judicial review, construction on the project was already underway following council’s approval. Epcor said the project is expected to be completed by the spring with construction ongoing. In order to install the solar panels and ensure enough sunlight, two stands of trees and tall shrubs needed to be removed, but Epcor said it will replace trees removed during the construction process as well as add an additional 7.4 acres of plants and trees in the surrounding area.

If the solar farm produces more energy than the plant can use, any excess will be stored in the backup system or exported back to the electrical grid.

duscook@postmedia.com

twitter.com/dustin_cook3 

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