Conservation group ordered to pay $33K for Epcor’s legal costs in solar farm dispute

A conservation group that fought for years to prevent Epcor from building a solar farm in Edmonton’s river valley must pay for a chunk of the utility company’s legal costs in defending the project, a judge has ruled.

Edmonton’s city council voted 7–6 to approve rezoning for the E.L. Smith Solar Farm in 2020. 

Once complete, the $40 million-project will generate renewable energy to power Epcor’s nearby water treatment plant, east of the Cameron Heights neighbourhood.

The Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition (ERVCC) opposed the project’s location, arguing river valley land should be protected. 

In January, Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice George Fraser dismissed the group’s judicial review to overturn city council’s decision on the solar farm.

ERVCC had argued that city council had violated its river valley redevelopment plan by not determining that the river valley land was essential to the project and by placing too much weight on its financial benefits instead of its social and environmental costs.

Justice Fraser said in his decision that the solar farm was neither a major public facility nor being financed by the city, so city council did not have to prove the location was essential. In addition, he said, the city’s bylaw did not outline how cost factors should be weighed.

Drone footage shows solar panels installed at the farm near Epcor’s E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant. (Supplied by Epcor)

According to last week’s costs ruling decision, Epcor spent nearly $240,000 in legal fees to defend the solar farm and sought to recover about 45 per cent.

The ERVCC argued it was entitled to costs because the matter was of exceptional public interest.

Justice Fraser disagreed, saying in his decision that there had not been significant public interest in the solar farm’s fate. He awarded costs in Epcor’s favour, but not for the amount the company was seeking. Epcor was awarded $32,689.51 in costs.

“We are pleased the court previously confirmed the correct process was followed when the solar farm was approved by city council, and this decision also validates our efforts,” an Epcor spokesperson told CBC News last week.

The spokesperson said construction on the solar farm continues and Epcor looks forward to commissioning it later this year. 

ERVCC chair Kristine Kowalchuk said the coalition is disappointed by the costs award decision and that Epcor pursued the costs at all.

“Does it make sense to penalize a conservation group whose very mandate is to protect the river valley?” she asked.

“What message does this decision send to groups working to stand up for the public interest in this province?”

Kristine Kowalchuk is the chair of the Edmonton River Valley Conservation Coalition. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

Both parties are in the process of finalizing the cost order, a lawyer for the coalition told CBC News.

According to the costs decision, the ERVCC already raised more than $27,000 to pay its own lawyers.

Kowalchuk said the ERVCC has filed a notice of appeal of the judicial review over concerns about the decision and the group hopes the public supports their next legal challenge.

As of Wednesday, the coalition’s latest crowdfunding campaign had raised $2,520 of a $40,000 goal.

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