Landowners worry about bulldozed rights as Hydro One plans 180 km power line

ONTARIO - Hundreds of Ontario landowners have begun banding together in an effort to ensure their rights aren't bulldozed along with their homes and properties as part of a $635-million plan to get new nuclear and green power to the Toronto area.

About 400 landowners are affected by a proposed 180-kilometre long high-tension power line that Hydro One wants to string on 700 pylons between the town of Milton, Ont., to the shores of Lake Huron.

"It goes right through my house, takes out my property and it puts me out of business," said Rob Barlow, of Limehouse, Ont., the co-founder of the new grassroots lobby group Powerline Connections.

"The province has put a gun to their own head, and now they're taking it out on the landowners."

Under an agreement with Bruce Power, the province has contracted to buy 1,500 megawatts of electricity produced by the nuclear plant at the lake's edge near Kincardine, Ont., when two reactors come back on line in 2009 and the plant gets up to full strength by 2012.

Barlow, whose father spent his life designing the original Candu nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont., feels a particular sting when he considers his current dilemma.

"It's rather ironic that my father's life work is putting me out of my house," he said ruefully.

Provincial ratepayers will be on the hook for up to $460 million a year for each "stranded" nuclear unit that cannot get power to the grid because of transmission issues, government documents show.

Also, the province has committed to at least 700 megawatts of wind power from the Bruce County area as part of its strategy to mothball its coal-fired power plants.

In March, the Ontario Power Authority, which administers power contracts in the province, urged Hydro One to get cracking on building a new 500-kilovolt transmission line to ensure the power can flow to energy-hungry southern Ontario.

"Otherwise, power goes to waste and the province certainly needs it," said Tim Taylor, spokesman for the authority.

The best way to achieve that aim, the authority decided, is to add a third 500-kilovolt line along an expanded corridor that already runs from Bruce to Milton.

Skeptics, including Greenpeace, say the authority's recommendation for "approvals stream lining" to enable Hydro One to meet an aggressive in-service deadline of Dec. 1, 2011, will mean riding roughshod over environmental concerns - and landowners.

For example, Hydro needs to get onto the affected land to begin preliminary work even before deals have been signed with landowners or environmental and regulatory approvals granted.

Gary Schneider, Hydro One's project manager, conceded the power authority has imposed a "challenging schedule."

However, getting the line up on time is "doable," provided the various approvals are done in parallel, and property owners co-operate, Schneider said.

Co-operation depends entirely on whether Hydro One plays fair ball, landowners say.

"We appreciate power just as much as the people in Toronto do," said Jim Magwood, whose family-owned dairy farm just north of Hanover, Ont., including home, barns and sugar bush, will likely be bulldozed for the new line.

"But is it a fair burden to be placing on 400 landowners solely for the benefit for the people of Toronto?"

Without fair treatment, those affected warn the process could get messy. Pitched legal battles and delays could quickly become a political liability for the provincial government.

The utility, which can force unwilling owners to sell land, has promised to be sensitive to the impact the line could have.

Initially, the plan was to move to expropriate this fall but that's now been pushed back a full year, leaving two full years to reach amicable compensation deals.

"This is an area where we've actually listened to the landowners," said Hydro One vice-president Mike Sheehan, who heads the utility's real estate group.

To ensure everyone is compensated fairly, the utility is hiring independent appraisers to assess the value of any land taken, the impact on the remaining property, and business or other losses, Sheehan said.

The landowners' group, which has hired a lawyer, fears the utility is taking an overly narrow view of their potential losses.

For one thing, the very idea of another powerline tends to depress property values. There are also question the fairness of Hydro One's refusal to compensate those just outside the 60-metre corridor expansion.

"Is it fair? It's a difficult answer to give," Sheehan said.

"I can see a landowner saying, 'Well, if I'm immediately adjacent to the corridor but the corridor is not on my property, I should receive some sort of compensation,' but that's not how basically property rights work."

Landowners also worry they don't have the resources to ensure even-handed negotiations.

"All these landowners are having to pay retainers to lawyers and do all this work and they have no resources other than their own and yet Hydro One and the province are using our taxpayers' money to do this process," Barlow said.

"They're not willing sellers. It's an expropriation, so all the costs should be paid for by the group that's expropriating."

Hydro One said help for legal fees will be available to individuals once expropriation actually begins, but not for the approvals stage.


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