WESTLOCK – Westlock County residents living near a yet-to-be-built Hutterite colony on the eastern border of the County of Barrhead at SE-25-59-2-W5 are ringing alarm bells with concerns over increased traffic and added stress on the area’s water resources and have appealed the May 2 decision of that county’s municipal planning commission (MPC) that approved the development.
And following a close to 30-minute presentation by the group to Westlock County councillors at their May 16 committee of the whole meeting asking for support in their effort to stall the development, then a behind-closed-doors debate and a short, special council meeting, local politicians agreed to pen a letter to their counterparts in Barrhead echoing some of the group’s issues.
Westlock County CAO Tony Kulbisky said the letter to the County of Barrhead, which will also be sent to the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) and Alberta Environment, will “articulate the concerns” surrounding road use and “real issues with water management and waste management.” On May 2, the County of Barrhead MPC voted 6-1 to approve the application from the New Rockport Hutterian Brethren, who have an existing colony in Warner County, near Lethbridge. According to previous reporting, once the colony, which is adjacent to Township Road 594 near Highway 777, is operational it will be home to about 70 residents and have several buildings, including four large roadhouse-style residential units, various shop and canning buildings, a plastic manufacturing plant, assorted farm buildings and a church and school — an application has also been made to the NRCB for potential turkey and chicken operations. Construction at the site is expected to start this summer, with an anticipated completion date in 2025.
And while Kulbisky says they fully-recognize the proposal is under the jurisdiction of the County of Barrhead, they “want to make sure our points are articulated very clearly” so that “there’s a letter on the record” saying “these are the legitimate concerns of our residents and councillors.”
“We’re talking about a potential impact to 18 to 20 residents on the Westlock County side and maybe one or two residents who are impacted on the Barrhead side, so you can see that if the shoe was on the other foot, they’d probably have the same concerns with us,” said Kulbisky in a follow-up interview.
“We want to know how much water is going to be drawn from the (Pembina) river to support the operation and does that have an impact on the (Westlock) water commission because that’s where it draws its water from. Are there any waste-management issues, like if manure leeches through the peat moss into the river basin? Is that also not a concern? If the water is impacted, that impacts the entire Westlock County and I think that’s pretty important.
“We’re not trying to throw a roadblock, but has anyone actually contacted them just to make sure these legitimate pieces are at least touched on?”
County of Barrhead CAO Debbie Oyarun confirmed they met with the Westlock residents and “listened to them about their concerns and told them about the process.” On May 15 the group submitted an appeal of the MPC decision, which will be heard by the subdivision and development appeal board (SDAB), which is made up of public members — Oyarun said that appeal will be heard by mid-June with a decision within two weeks.
“It’s an arms-length process,” Oyarun explained, noting they have an agreement with the Town of Mayerthorpe to hear MPC appeals. “It is a very legislated, regulated, independent third-party process. Our staff will present it, drawing attention to the applicable sections of the land-use bylaw, the type of information that goes in our RFDs (requests for decision) when we bring them to MPC for a decision, so the board can see how the decisions were made and based on.”
The presentation to Westlock County councillors was led by area resident Terry Byvank, while a handful of others also spoke. Byvank, who said the development “will affect our quality of life for sure” and be a “disruption to our peaceful area”, also provided GIS mapping of the area and the colony’s site plan.
Specifically, Byvank said they’re worried about increased traffic on Township Road 594 between Range Road 20 and Highway 777, adding that an operation of that size will undoubtedly bring “increased noise and likely manure odour.”
“This three-mile section of road has incurred the same damage as many roads in Westlock County due to the past wet years we have experienced and will no doubt sustain even greater damage with the increased traffic brought on with the intensive operation that is being proposed,” reads his May 9 letter in part.
Byvank also said some of the other concerns from the close-knit community, which came together April 30 to fight a wildfire that threatened multiple homes, includes competition for land as “they won’t be happy with what they have and they’ll want more.” He also confirmed that there are 18 occupied yard sites within 2.5 miles “immediately downwind” of the colony in Westlock County, while on the Barrhead side there’s none close.
“So, for any young farmer, like my own son, it makes it difficult trying to compete against an entity that seems to have far deeper pockets than anyone else,” he added.
Terry’s father Merv, who submitted the appeal of the MPC decision, said his biggest concern is “the fire hazard” noting their two quarters adjoining the colony include 200 acres of peat soil and 120 acres of “native bush.”
• With files from Barry Kerton