Peat plant process problems in Springfield

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This article was published 13/08/2020 (780 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opponents of a new peat processing plant have criticized the RM of Springfield council for their procedural conduct in approving the facility, using in-camera meetings inappropriately, and wrongly categorizing a peat moss plant as agricultural use.

These are charges the RM denies and Mayor Tiffany Fell said they’re just following through on their mandate to welcome more business.

One of the opponents is Heather Erickson, a regular attendee of council meetings.

Josh Greschner Allan Akins and Margaret Marion-Akins present a petition with some 270 signatures opposing a peat moss processing plant to be built by their property in the RM of Springfield. Some of Akins’ concerns centre on the process the RM’s council used to approve the plant. Mayor Tiffany Fell said the RM did nothing wrong and followed the rules.

Erickson is an even more constant presence than media that covers the municipality. The RM audio records its public meetings, and Erickson transcribes them. She sends her notes online to an audience interested in the RM’s affairs.

But unlike a run-of-the-mill news reporter, Erickson writes opinions in the notes she disseminates. Erickson, a former Springfield councilor, writes about when she thinks council isn’t following their process properly. Her notes can also be harsh and personal toward councilors.

Erickson opposes many things council tries to do, sometimes for environmental reasons.

A resolution caught Erickson’s attention at a March 2019 planning meeting. Council voted unanimously to agree “with the recent reclassification of peat moss by the Manitoba government as an agricultural product.”

Before making the resolution, council went in-camera. They then publicly made the resolution.

An in-camera meeting is a private meeting council can enter, and councilors need not disclose to the public discussions from in-camera meetings. In-camera meetings are usually used by councils for land, law and labour matters.

Erickson wondered why council would agree that peat moss was agricultural.

“You harvest it,” Erickson told The Carillon, “but you don’t sow it.”

A provincial government spokesperson The Carillon recently contacted agreed with Erickson.

“Peat moss is not harvested as an agricultural product,” the spokesperson wrote. “It is a natural resource.”

In her notes, Erickson speculated the resolution was made possibly to accommodate some form of future peat moss harvesting in the RM.

“Peat extraction is an irreversible process and stripping peat would be a double whammy to the environment,” Erickson wrote in her notes.

Erickson was also concerned council was using in-camera meetings in ways they shouldn’t be, and wondered why council would go into an in-camera meeting before making a resolution.

Erickson said when she was on council, occasionally some councillors tried to take matters in-camera, which she said shouldn’t have been. Discussion among councilors can be valuable to public because it gives the public the opportunity to consider their reasoning.

At a planning meeting in April 2019, another council matter caught Erickson’s attention. According to her notes, council went in-camera again, went out, and made a resolution that “the definition of agricultural activities within the Springfield zoning by-law be amended to include peat moss.”

Erickson asked how “peat moss,” a noun, could be considered an agricultural activity – an activity is something you do, thus a verb. Erickson in her notes again questioned council’s process.

 

Plant proposal

It turns out a reason council made the resolutions wasn’t because of a peat mining plant, but because of a peat moss processing plant.

Quebec-based company Berger wants to build a plant on Oakwood Road between Provincial Road 207 and Lorne Hill Road. The plant would be located on a former equestrian property, and the site is close to the perimeter highway. Work on the site began earlier this year.

Peat moss harvesting takes place near Deer Lake and Hadashville, Springfield Mayor Tiffany Fell said. Material would then be transported to the plant in the RM.

Allan Akins lives near the proposed site. He’s worked as a property developer and has worked with municipal councils over the years.

According to a submission Akins made as part of a provincial environmental process, the development is located on land zoned as general agricultural.

The plant would involve mixing of peat moss, bagging large amounts of material, and transporting it from the site.

At peak operations, according to Berger’s application, the plant could process up to 1.5 million bags of loose peat moss and 2.5 million bags of growing media.

A map in Berger’s application shows facilities, once completed, could occupy nearly half of a quarter section.

Springfield Mayor Tiffany Fell told The Carillon Berger intended to use buildings that were already on the property.

The mixing of peat moss with other ingredients is to take place in a new building, according to a Berger spokesperson.

Those who oppose the project argued the plant isn’t agricultural, but something more like industrial or commercial.

Akins, in his submission, wrote according to the provincial Planning Act, zoning by-law amendments are required to be made via by-law, not resolution, and are subject to a municipal public hearing process.

Akins also wrote according to the Planning Act, peat moss isn’t referenced in regard to “agricultural operation.” Akins argued the area isn’t zoned properly for such a plant.

Zoning is important because agricultural use doesn’t need to go to a municipal public hearing process, whereas industrial/commercial properties typically would.

Resident Darryl Speer first heard about what was happening at the property in an advertisement in the June 25, 2020 issue of The Clipper. The advertisement didn’t come from the RM but from the province as part of the environmental assessment process.

Berger, according to their application, said they had begun renovating the building in June 2020. Speer and other critics argue council has strongarmed the process and didn’t proceed with proper public consultation, and used agricultural zoning as cover. They argue council wasn’t entitled to use agricultural zoning in such a way in the first place.

“It’s very difficult for people to even get a grasp of what’s going on here,” Speer said, adding residents felt shut out of the process.

Berger hosted an open house in July about the project. According to Berger’s application, the open house was originally scheduled for the spring but was pushed back due to the pandemic.

Speer said Berger ought to have made more of an effort using online communication applications.

The Mayor responds

Despite opposition, Mayor Tiffany Fell said council did nothing wrong.

The peat moss processing project could bring some 50 jobs to the area, Fell said, and economic development has been a priority of council, a point on which they were elected.

An explanation for the resolutions, Fell said, was they were done as a means of transparency. Fell said council didn’t need to pass the resolutions at all.

Fell said the RM consulted with the Community and Regional Planning Branch in Beausejour.

In a letter the RM’s planner sent to the province, Berger’s proposed facility could have been classified as any one of four agricultural-related categories according to the RM’s zoning, none of which would not trigger a municipal public hearing process.

“When we went to the planning office, [the provincial planner] said peat is an agricultural use,” Fell said.

Fell said some consistently oppose most forms of economic development in the RM. Some wanted a public hearing process for a Parrish and Heimbecker elevator project. In that case, people found out about the project as it was being built. Fell said she’s encouraged businesses to hold their own open houses.

The Berger project still has to be approved via a provincial environmental assessment process, but when The Carillon asked Fell if the project was most likely to be approved, Fell said it was, although Berger would likely still have some conditions by which to abide.

 Agriculture?

According to one staff member of a different RM, the designation of peat moss and its processing would be something of a grey area, and could be classified under different categories.

The Carillon contacted the provincial planning office in Beausejour in an attempt to find out why someone in the office would consider a peat moss processing plant agricultural use despite peat moss’ harvesting as a natural resource.

A transfer to a provincial spokesperson did not supply answers to the question of whether the RM of Springfield was correct to categorize the peat moss processing plant as agricultural use.

Margaret Marion-Akins and Allan Akins have collected some 270 signatures of people opposing the project.

Akins said he’s waiting to hear the results of the environmental application, but he and others could begin legal action, with some arguments possibly centering on the process the RM and council used to approve the project.

As of Monday, there were workers on the proposed Berger plant site.

If the public hearing process was properly conducted, Akins said he’d accept the outcome, and residents would have no choice.

“But we’re not sure it’s legally correct for the RM to do this,” Akins said.

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