De Havilland Canada's aircraft manufacturing facility will continue to move forward, but the huge industry remains a divisive topic.
Wheatland County Council approved the motion to amend the land use bylaw where De Havilland is building, which would allow for shipping containers to be used for temporary storage on the land, thus allowing De Havilland to move parts and equipment to the site prior to construction. This approved bylaw amendment is not the final approval on the facility, and several county councillors stressed that there will be far more planning, discussion, and opportunity for community members to speak as the project moves forward.
Several groups like the Strathmore Wheatland Chamber of Commerce (SWCC), Lakewood of Strathmore, and Legacy Farms all attended the public hearing to voice their support of De Havilland. Located between Range Roads 264 and 265, this 1500-acre facility is expected to create 1500 jobs and provide an enormous economic boost to Wheatland County.
"The project will be a huge win, not only for us, but all of Alberta," said the SWCC's Executive Director Natasha Fyfe.
Director of Business Development for the Legacy Farm project Scott Silva said over 100 years ago, Strathmore was known as an agriculturalist Mecca and has shaped our country's agriculture during the last century. Silva believes the De Havilland facility will bring a similar impact.
"It's a game changer, this really brings the growth and the awareness to this region that is needed for so long. What is happening out here is really going to set the bar for the next 50 years and beyond to come," Silva said.
While the economic implications could be huge for the county and province, many community members expressed concern about the project. Ranging from logistical concerns to issues surrounding the facility's proximity to people's homes, these community members raised a strong voice of opposition against the facility. Ron Heckle was concerned the county is losing its focus on agriculture, and feels big business and facilities like De Havilland hurts the county, as agriculture is a huge part of our county's history and economy.
"What about agriculture? Just a couple of years ago the county wrote a municipal development plan on preserving farmland and agriculture and the agricultural way of life. All of a sudden big business comes around flashing their money and you immediately forget about that plan that you wrote," Heckle said.
He added the physical loss of the land itself is huge, as he believes that farmland is some of the best in western Canada, saying it consistently produces high yields. During later discussion, County Reeve Amber Link said the land remained unsold for 17 years, and once it was bought the county does not have the jurisdiction or power to prevent people or businesses from buying land.
Other concerns from several other community members included but weren't limited to:
- The impact of construction and a manufacturing facility would severely decrease quality of life for the people that live nearby. Beyond the noise and increased activity, losing the farmland view would be a big loss for many community members.
- How specifically Wheatland County residents benefit. The increased revenue is expected to be a huge boon for the municipal and provincial government, but one community member wanted to see how that would be given back to the community members and taxpayers themselves.
- "I think it's funny you talk about how many jobs it will bring to the county, Calgary is only 20 minutes away from this land, Chestermere 10, Langdon 5. These workers will no doubt be coming from these communities, not choosing to move to Strathmore, so technically we're helping out Calgary residents, we're not helping out our own county," said Christian Heckle, another community member opposed to the facility
- One young family with a baby said they may have to move out, as they bought their land as a peaceful place to raise a family, not be surrounded by construction, noise, and potential pollution.
- Logistical issues such as stormwater drainage and potential flooding.
When responding to community concerns, the developers of the De Havilland project and several county councillors said the following:
- "It's a very low-impact industry, manufacturing aircraft. It's not invasive to the environment. Of course, there will be perhaps 2-3 aircraft a week lifting off from the runway and coming in. The noise on these aircraft isn't loud," said Brad Erickson of Westerkirk Capital. He added he spoke with other rural municipalities that also have aircraft manufacturing facilities, and the noise had no impact on nearby animals.
- "There will be county residents that can benefit from the jobs that are available. Yes, a lot will come from other municipalities, but this gives Wheatland County residents an opportunity for employment and to stay in some lower cost housing that we can provide here," county councillor Shannon Laprise said.
- For any nearby landowners worried about the view, privacy, noise etc. the county and developers both said they would continue to reach out to speak with these people to address whatever concerns they can.
- Regarding logistical issues, county council said those will be addressed as planning continues, and thanked the community for bringing this up.
In several concluding statements, Link and other councillors expressed that they are listening to community members and want to take into consideration how they can help address any concerns, but still believe moving forward with De Havilland and allowing the bylaw amendment was the right choice. Link specifically spoke on how difficult it is to balance a county's priorities and said she's lost sleep on how to best manage this.
"Our farmers need our roads, they need them to be in good condition, and our ratepayers expect it. And we knew that in order to do that, going into the future we needed to diversify the economy," she said.
"Agricultural taxation is highly regulated, and even though the vast majority of our land is agricultural, it doesn't generate a proportional amount of taxes, and I support that and understand the rationale for that, but in order to be sustainable we needed to take action."
As council approved the motion and concluded discussion on the bylaw amendment, several councillors once again reminded the public that there will be many other opportunities for discussion, and future planning will take concerns into account.
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