March 1st, 2024

Cypress County looks at mapping ag productivity

By COLLIN GALLANT on July 20, 2023.

The Brooks Solar 1 power array is shown in this May 2023 file photo. - NEWS PHOTO

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

Cypress County could create a map of agricultural productivity within its boundaries as a way to evaluate and challenge the location of renewable energy projects in the future.

Rural municipalities, including Cypress County, have increasingly argued they should have a greater say when large renewable energy fields are proposed, especially solar fields, that many often argue take large swaths of land out of production.

But the question of how to define “prime” in the county’s varied landscape, including grazing leases, dry and irrigated crop and hay land arose during debate at Tuesday’s council meeting in Dunmore.

Administrators say one measure could be made with data the county already possesses to determine tax assessment value.

The issue arose at council voted to send comments to regulators opposing the Peace Butte Solar project, which would cover six quarter-sections about 13 kilometres south of Medicine Hat, if built.

Councillors also directed staff to begin determining what areas are “prime” agricultural land ahead of future objections.

“I’m very much against the (Peace Butte Solar) project,” said Coun. Dustin Vossler. “To do it on some of the best dryland and agricultural land in Cypress County is an absolute shame, and we should stand against it at all costs.”

He said the dry parcels see good grain crops and gather water to fill the nearby local reservoir.

The county’s over-arching development policy is to prevent the fragmentation of agricultural land – it even limits the number of residences on sections – and to avoid development on irrigated land.

Alberta’s rural political leaders have argued that runs contrary to decisions by utility regulators decisions, which can become controversial when neighbouring landowners object citing productivity, unsightliness and industrialization of farmland.

County councillors agreed to note opposition to a public feedback process now underway regarding Peace Butte, but in the past have lobbied that such statements from local government carry more weight in the regulatory process.

“They’re promoting the agricultural sector and also supporting solar panels, and those (developers) don’t care where they build,” said Coun. Richard Oster on Tuesday.

“Taking prime land out of production is absolutely wrong.”

The AUC currently provides weight in decision making toward protecting unbroken native grassland, but in terms of cropland and tame hay, it’s the landowner who determines worth, whether it’s suitable for lease and has the ability to accept or decline projects.

Coun. Robin Kurpjuweit said the county needs a definition of “prime” and to decide whether to wade in on the subject.

“I’m not a big fan of these (projects), but if we classify all ag land as ‘prime’ then we start to lose our voice when (we object) – what is the land type we would stand behind?” he said.

“We need to be articulate about where we would encourage this projects rather than just opposing everything.”

Coun. Wayne Brost said the issue could prove troublesome as many ranchers “make a good living” on low production grassland, and the process could rub some landowners the wrong way.

Vossler said a definition could be worked out.

“If you can only graze half a cow per acre, that’s less than being able to graze 10,” said Vossler. “There’s poor land in this county, alkaline slews that would be perfect, and farm land that doesn’t produce.”

The county’s assessment department already has a database of soil type and grazing capacity (based on grass type) that is built to determine taxation value.

Corporate services director Stephen Toews said the system could be examined.

That would be similar to a project now completed by Rocky View County, near Calgary.

It evaluated suitability for wind and solar projects with the Mount Royal University and the Oldman River Regional Services Commission. It overlaid meteorological data with topographical features, like forest and protected environmental and historic sites. It then created a rating based on factors such as proximity to population as well as agricultural value and whether land was previously disturbed.

Cypress County chief administrator Tarolyn Aaserud told council the project needs to be defined and have objectives if a policy is developed, but could begin this summer.

“Let’s make sure we’re on the right track because this will be a big project, let’s figure out our goals, what you want and we’ll bring it back,” she said.

The Peace Butte Solar project proposed to place solar arrays on six quarter-sections of land west of the intersection of the Black and White Trail and Township Road 100. Public comments on the project are open until Aug. 2 as the Alberta Utilities Commission considers the application by Aura Power.

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