Bala Falls receives MOE green card
Time for the community to heal: Ratepayers
MUSKOKA LAKES - The Bala Falls hydroelectric project is moving forward with plans to begin construction in late summer.
The controversial project received the final go-ahead from Minister of Environment Jim Bradley on Jan. 23 after five and a half years of back and forth between citizens and the province on environmental assessments and appeals.
“I am satisfied that the issues and concerns have been addressed by the work done to date by Swift River Energy Limited, or will be addressed in future work that is required to be carried out,” Bradley said in a letter addressed to concerned citizens.
The letter was in response to 69 appeals to the director of environment’s previous go-ahead on the project in September.
The hydroelectric dam is a three- to five-megawatt run-of-river water power facility planned to be adjacent to the North Bala Falls.
The original environmental assessment was for a location 100 feet away from the falls, but was officially moved to be adjacent to the falls in May 2012. When Swift River announced they would be changing the location, opponents requested an individual environmental assessment from the province for the altered location.
Bradley said some of the issues that were raised in the appeal were considered in past decisions and did not apply to the new location.
“As some of your issues do not pertain to the modification of the project, I am not able to review those issues under this decision-making process,” he said.
Save the Bala Falls, a group organized in 2008 to fight the project, and the Township of Muskoka Lakes were among those who appealed the decision. Both Mitchell Shnier, a member of Save the Bala Falls, and Muskoka Lakes Mayor Alice Murphy said they needed some time before suggesting what the decision means for their organizations.
Karen McGhee, project manager for Swift River, was in a meeting with equipment and service suppliers for the project when the decision came through.
“We’re very happy, but it’s been a very long process,” she said.
McGhee anticipates work will begin in late summer or early fall instead of the spring start date they had hoped for.
She said she expects the changed start date will work better for the community since much of the heavy work will be done throughout the fall and winter instead of the spring and summer.
She has already received interest from a couple dozen companies scattered throughout Muskoka wanting to provide goods and services for the project including contractors, sandwich shops, hotel and resort owners, material suppliers and security, McGhee said.
Susan Daglish, president of the Muskoka Ratepayers Association, is hoping the decision will bring healing to the community which has been split by the controversial project since it was first announced in August of 2007.
She said she doesn’t think the dam was on anyone’s wish list, and that the division was not caused by whether people wanted the hydroelectric dam or not, but whether they thought they could change the government’s decision.
“I’m glad it’s over,” she said. “I felt that the process had been followed. I felt that the Save the Bala Falls people did everything they could, but it always was the province’s decision, not the township’s ... I can only hope that some healing will begin. That’s been, I think, the tragic part of this whole difference is that Bala has been a town divided.”
Stan Hunter, president of the Parry Sound Muskoka Green Party, suggested the project could have been better and he regretted the divisiveness it caused in the community, but congratulated Swift River and endorsed the project.
“Ultimately it (the decision) is the right one, and we welcome green sustainable energy just as proudly in Bala as we do in Bracebridge,” he said.
The decision comes two weeks after the Conservation Review Board hearing in Port Carling regarding three Bala properties Muskoka Lakes is considering for designation in the area of Bala Falls.
“We’re waiting for a decision on that, I don’t see that impacting us for the project,” McGhee said.
The potential designated areas caused concern to Swift River when the township indicated their intent to designate the view from that land, which would include the location of the planned dam.
McGhee said Swift River was represented by two heritage experts at the hearing who said views from a property are not included in the heritage act.
The Ontario Heritage Trust would not confirm whether or not views can be designated because the case is still before the review board.
The recommendation from the review board is expected at the beginning of March, but the final decision whether to designate a site is still up to the municipality.