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SUDBURY, ONTARIO – For Patti Desjardins, a life-long resident of Valley East, it all comes down to the trees and wildlife.

“I walk that land. I know that land,” she said on Thursday. “It’s forested. There are wetlands and threatened species on that property. I’ve seen them. We know this is a healthy forest, so why would we think of destroying it to put up anything. On our property, which is part of the same forest, we have trees that are easily 80 to 100 years old – we’ve measured them. There are glorious white pines, red pines, spruce, birch and maple, and they don’t deserve to be destroyed for any reason.”

Desjardins was one of more than 150 concerned citizens who filed through the Valley East library on Thursday evening for a public information session sponsored by Toronto-based SkyPower Global, which is looking to build as many as four solar farms in the Greater Sudbury area.

Of great concern for most attendees were the proposed sites near Carol Richard Park in Val Caron and Kenneth Drive in Val Therese. There are also proposed sites off Highway 144 and in the Montée Principale/Bonin Street area of Chelmsford.

Desjardins lives next to the proposed MaxLight project off Kenneth Drive. Her biggest concern is what she calls the hypocrisy of this particular site.

While she fully supports green energy sources, she was troubled by the destruction of ecosystems that sustain threatened species, including Blanding’s turtles and whip-poor-wills. She has also seen moose, lynx, bear and rabbits on her property, which is continuous with the proposed site.

“I find it very hypocritical. You don’t destroy healthy land to build green energy projects,” she told The Star. “Sudbury is full of vacant land that’s been destroyed by industry in the past, so we should be using those sites to make them worthwhile and useful again. We don’t strip the green we’ve spent years re-growing in this area, to only tear down for more industry. That’s just nonsense. It’s repeating the errors of the past.”

Councillors Robert Kirwan and Rene Lapierre (Wards 5 and 6, respectively) attended on Thursday to learn more.

“I’ve had quite a few residents in my ward – especially regarding the project off Kenneth Drive – who have raised concerns,” Lapierre said. “The residents are concerned that it’s all land that’s beautifully grown in and bushy. There are lots of animals living there. Nobody’s against solar power; they’re just against the location and they’d like it moved.”

According to Lapierre, SkyPower still has to complete environmental assessments.

“My understanding when speaking to some of these people is that they (company representatives) haven’t even walked the land yet,” he added.

Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas was on a fact-finding mission at Thursday’s meeting.

“A lot of people from my riding have reached out to our office because they have questions,” she said. “Tonight is my chance to ask those questions and I’ve come here looking for answers.”

She was not surprised by the turnout, having heard repeatedly about various environmental concerns, as well as questions regarding process and procedure.

Cairin Nelson was concerned enough about the proposed Kenneth Drive project, which would consume about 75 acres, to launch an online petition at change.org. As of Thursday evening, she had 334 supporters of the required 500.

“This location would require stripping of forested land and interfering with wetland habitats,” she told The Star. “This is part of the Vermillion River watershed.”

She is not opposed to solar farms, but would prefer to see them established on “desecrated land,” such as dump sites, tailings sites, slag heaps, agricultural lands that have been over-farmed or brownfields.

“We’ve been working quite diligently. We’ve gone door-to-door, online, talked to everybody we see to make sure they’re aware of what’s coming to their community,” she said.

Kirwan said the city has little power in this situation, since the projects fall under the jurisdiction of the provincial government. They are scored, so the approval of a municipal council bodes well for and increases a project’s overall score, but the final decision rests with Queen’s Park.

“We have no power to stop a project like this if it gets approved, because it’s a provincial energy project,” the Ward 5 representative explained. “It’s not a done-deal and I think it’s causing a lot more commotion than it has to, but if you do nothing, it helps their application.”

He indicated, however, that he plans to bring forward a motion to council asking them to reverse a 2012 decision by which they approved the projects.

“We’re going to try to see if we can raze these two projects, because they’re in our wards,” Kirwan said of he and Lapierre. “We’ll see if we can ask council to disapprove them, after they’ve been approved. It probably doesn’t make a difference, because they’ve already been approved, but I’m representing the people in Ward 5 and what I’m hearing is that they don’t want this.”

SkyPower is only at step two of a seven-step process and even if the solar farms are approved for Greater Sudbury, they likely would not be operational at least until 2019. But if Thursday’s meeting was any indication, the company will have a mighty battle ahead of it. They did not have anyone available for media interviews and none of the staff in attendance would speak on the record, but it was clear from the crowd that a fervent opposition movement is coalescing.

Desjardins is just getting started. She plans to forward a formal letter of opposition to city council. So far, she has commitments from at least 15 people who are willing to add their signatures.

“(We want to let them know) this is not where we want to see these projects happen; these projects can be done elsewhere,” she said. “By all means, bring them into the Sudbury area – let’s do something productive – but let’s do it where it’s appropriate. I’m all about shutting down the coal-fired plants. I love alternative sources of energy. I’m all about green, but it has to be done with sense and thought.”

Published in the Sudbury Star on June 12, 2015