Bitcoin Mining/Data Centre Public Hearing Held

Kneehill Logo 2019

All Councillors were present for Kneehill County Council’s February 13, 2024 Regular Meeting, called to order by Reeve King at 8:30 am. The agenda was approved with added Councillor reports, and previous meeting minutes were approved as presented.

The first item on the agenda was to discuss Bylaw 1889, an amendment to Land Use Bylaw 1808, presented by Manager of Planning and Development, Barb Hazelton. Throughout a fragmented discussion, as delegations came and went, Council unanimously approved third reading of the Bylaw. Council noted that they are concerned with the preservation of high-classification farmland and that the Municipal Government Act has empowered the Province with greater authority to approve renewable energy projects. As such, Council wanted to ensure that Land Use Bylaw 1808 was robust enough to protect environmentally and agriculturally significant land, in addition to protecting water bodies, livestock, human health, and ensuring proper setbacks around residences, hamlets, towns, and villages. Sections 71 and 74 of the current Land Use Bylaw 1808 will be replaced by Bylaw 1889.

The process of amending this bylaw began in the summer of 2023. On August 3, 2023, the Provincial Government put a pause on project approvals through the Alberta Utilities Commission to investigate policies and procedures for the development of renewable electricity generation. This pause ends on March 1, 2024 and Hazelton noted that Administration is on track to meet its goal of finalizing the bylaw amendment prior to the end of February. A public hearing was held on December 12th, 2023. Council had a fulsome discussion of feedback from the public hearing at their January 16th Committee of the Whole meeting, especially related to setbacks and impacts on livestock and human health. Administration reached out to Jayson Galbraith, PhD, P. Ag., the Acting Manager for the Office of the Chief Provincial Veterinarian for Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation and he provided several studies for Council’s consideration regarding human and herd health. These studies were included in the January 16th Committee of the Whole meeting agenda package on the County’s webpage.

Council discussed whether setbacks should be two miles for hamlets, towns, and villages and County residences outside of a municipality. As written, urbans have a two-mile setback and residences have a one-mile setback. Although Council expressed some concern about the perceived fairness of these setbacks, they did continue with the Bylaw as written, noting that it is a living, breathing document that could be changed in the future.

Council added “insect” to the list of pests, as it relates to renewable energy developments, to ensure that these sites would not become sources of infestation for surrounding crops. Councillor Christie notes that insects tend to be more prevalent in forge stands, which is what many of these sites would be. Kevin Gannon, Director of Community Services, asked that a definition be included to coincide with the Agricultural Pest Act which includes insects so that when the Ag Pest Act is changed, the Bylaw will not need to be amended.

Council also approved Administration’s suggested wording change related to stormwater management to read “The applicant must submit a Stormwater Management Plan that outlines how they will mitigate offsite impacts to adjacent lands, roads, or waterbodies (either permanent or intermittent), located in proximity to the site. This plan will be reviewed by municipal engineers to ensure that it meets the protection necessary for these adjacent lands.”

Legal opinion was sought to determine whether Council would be required to hold another public hearing for the amendments they wished to make to the Bylaw. There is not a public hearing required according to the MGA or in the opinion of legal counsel. While procedural fairness could be contested by supporters of renewable energy projects due to the two-mile setbacks from municipalities, legal counsel did not think it would matter as these projects are based on AUC approval. There was estimated to be a limited risk of a challenge.

The motion to accept Bylaw 1889 as amended passed unanimously. Councillor Christie abstained from voting as he was not present at the public hearing.

Wimborne Community Centre Society members Dorothy Weimer and Mark Goodbrand were present to share information with Council on Wimborne’s Community Centre renovations and to ask for $15,000 in funding through the Rural Community Hall Capital Grant. The Community Centre was described as the hub of the community from the early 1900s, renovated in part throughout the century. A large renovation was recently undertaken to modernize the hall, including overhauling the entryway, replacing asbestos in the coatroom and barroom with new insulation, adding running water and a sink to the barroom, removing the 40-year-old orange carpet, and removing the rarely used stage to add 240 square feet of usable space. Kitchen cabinets were damaged during a recent break-in, so they have been redone; the flooring needs to be replaced in the kitchen. Renovations had already begun when the Community Centre Society read about the grant in The Capital and wondered whether the grant could be applied retroactively. The Society has a group of volunteers who have and will continue to donate their labour to ensure that the Centre remains a functional and efficient gathering place for years to come.

The Society has held a Casino, and has held fundraisers including a community calendar, during their winter festival, and on Canada Day. They have also had a Bowden Institute community group trained in construction help with $16,000 worth of labour which was a great experience. Council was amazed at how much could be done with just a bit of money.

Council was encouraged by the amount of use and support that the Centre has daily. Renovations will hopefully be done by April 13th. Council noted that they do meet eligibility for the grant and that there is money available. Currently, there is $20,000 budgeted with no other applicants. Council did note that if there were other halls interested in this grant that money could be taken from other funds, even though only $5,000 remained in the specific grant fund. Council voted with all in favour of providing the Wimborne Community Centre Society with $15,000 from the Rural Community Hall Capital Grant fund to assist them in their modernization assignment. There will be a photo op in the future, and a small plaque or sign at the hall recognizing the ratepayers of Kneehill for making it happen.

Matt Price from the Acme Alumni Association came by Council chambers to pick up a cheque for $100,000 for the Acme School and to take a photo with Council.

Next was a public hearing for Bylaw 1894, to amend Land Use Bylaw 1808 and redesignate a portion of SE 24-28-24 W4 and NE 13-28-24 W4 from Agricultural District to Light Industrial District, presented by Planning & Development Officer Deanna Keiver. The public hearing was advertised according to the MGA. The RFD reads “Britestone Hutterian Brethren Church are the current landowners…and have granted SABR Energy Consulting Inc. the authority (agent) to apply on behalf of Athill Tech Solution Ltd. to construct and operate a 9.97-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant for Bitcoin mining/data centre operation.” This site is 6 miles southwest of Carbon, accessed via Highway 21, and will have 7 natural gas generators connected to 20 data centre containers in addition to an office trailer, directly west of an existing Ember lease. Ember has given their approval. The site is within a mile of six residences. AHS and Alberta Transportation both sent letters indicating no concerns. No letters were received in opposition to the project.

Council asked whether there were emissions or noise reports available; SABR Energy indicated that they would send reports but that they are in compliance. Councillor Cunningham asked whether there was a clean-up plan should the project end but was reminded that this public hearing is only to determine redesignation and not to approve a project.

One adjacent landowner was on hand to ask questions, in opposition to a Bitcoin mining centre. While he was reminded that the public hearing was only to decide land redesignation, he noted that choosing to redesignate is in essence approving the project, as that is the intended next step should it pass the Municipal Planning Commission’s approval. He felt that noise levels would increase substantially with the Bitcoin mining centre running round the clock, that Bitcoin is a largely unregulated industry, that many counties are now banning these projects, and had concerns about emissions. SABR and Athill indicated their willingness to meet one-on-one with the concerned landowner.

Keiver noted that Bitcoin mining is a discretionary use for light industrial district and the project would need approval from the Municipal Planning Commission. Even projects labelled as permitted in light industrial district can be sent to the MPC for their approval. Reeve King affirmed that the preservation of agricultural land is a priority to Council, but that this doesn’t mean other developments cannot be permitted. Tax revenue for this development is estimated to be insignificant, with Reeve King also noting that the revenue is not what drives Council decisions.

Prior to a vote, Council was again reminded that moving second and third reading to redesignate the land does not approve the project, and that noise and emissions reports would be included prior to project approval when the development is brought to the MPC. Second and third readings were opposed by Councillors Fobes and Cunningham, as they wanted to see emissions and noise level reports before approval, but the motion did pass.

Item 7.1 under Legislative Services was Council Speaker’s Request presented by CAO Mike Haugan. Haugan was looking for Council’s guidance whether they’d like to bring in a representative from AUC, NRCB, or other organizations to improve Council’s knowledge on certain topics. Council agreed that information is never a bad thing and that having these individuals in the room available for questions would be beneficial. They also requested certain ministers and MLAs be invited also. The motion was passed unanimously.

Council was in Closed Session from 11 am to 12:06 pm for a legal discussion.

Councillors presented their Council and Committee Reports.

Item 9.1 was Drumheller Solid Waste. Councillor Penner submitted minutes from the DSW Budget and Regular meetings on December 14th and they did not require discussion. These (and all the other Councillor reports) can be found on the County webpage.

9.2 was Kneehill Regional Family and Community Support Services report, submitted by Reeve King. He mentioned the start of the FCSS tax program, for residents to receive assistance in completing their tax returns; 334 people utilized this service for the 2022 tax year thanks to 11 volunteers. FCSS reports over $2M is returning to these clients thanks to this program.

King also presented item 9.3, the Division 7 report. He attended the SCRMA Board Meeting, the FCSS Board Meeting, and the Kneehill Regional Partnership midterm refresher meeting. He attended a Trochu Housing Corporation meeting where he reported “they have now received grant funding from both AHS and the Ministry of Seniors, still awaiting an opportunity to apply for additional funding through CMHC (federal program).” He shared that they have finalized their architect and project manager and are moving forward on design and planning for servicing to have a backhoe in the ground on the project by September/October 2024. King also attended a meeting with Mayors, Reeves, CAOs, and local doctors to discuss healthcare and doctor retention. He noted that “Dr. Calhoun made a presentation to the group on the issues and concerns regarding the continued provision of health care in our area as seen from the doctors’ perspective.” Another meeting will take place on March 7th. MLA Nathan Cooper will be brought into the conversation to advocate for rural health care in rural areas, specifically in Kneehill, as they all together try to address the issues concerning local doctors.

9.4, Marigold Library, was Councillor Fobes’ item. Reeve King asked her what the municipal fee increase would be; she didn’t have the information to share but would send it to him.

Item 9.5, Kneehill Housing Corporation was also Fobes’ item. She remarked that Covid funding for the Golden Hills Lodge was abruptly halted at the end of December and now an increased requisition from municipalities will be requested. This increase cannot be passed on to renters, she explained after a question from Reeve King, as their rent is determined based on a percentage of their income.

Councillors McGhee and Christie handled 9.6, a report on the tourism summit they recently attended. Both felt the summit was very worth their time and County’s money and McGhee commented that it was the hardest she’s ever worked at a conference. While there had been some doubt whether the conference would pertain to rural areas, she noted that almost every session had a rural emphasis, unlike any other conference she’d attended. Some Councillors had attended a previous tourism conference and felt it was light on substance, however, those were supplemental meetings and this one was their main, information-heavy summit detailing Travel Alberta’s strategies and desired outcomes, namely doubling the amount of tourists to the Province.

McGhee noted that Drumheller was mentioned over and over and said “If we don’t start being part of that story, I don’t know if we will ever recover from that. The time and focus going into the Badlands region is massive.”

Councillor Christie shared numbers from the summit: during Covid, tourism revenue dropped below $5B annually in the Province but went back to pre-Covid revenue at $10.4B in 2022. Travel Alberta’s tourism goal is $20B in revenue annually by 2030 and $25B by 2035. The Provincial Government would like to see 18% of these amounts spent in Central Alberta, not including the cities or Foothills; Christie emphasized that $1.2B was spent in Central Alberta in 2022 and that would be $2.2B by 2035. He noted this is a huge growth potential and that tourists are looking for unique experiences from their travels. 18 ministries were given letters from the government mandating them to get more involved in tourism.

McGhee noted that Tourism Alberta is looking for Kneehill County’s vision for tourism so that the County can be part of their strategy. Mr. Gannon commented that Administration is working on an economic development plan based on Council’s wishes.

Item 9.7 was an update on the SCRMA event which Councillor Fobes attended. She heard a lot about the drought situation and enjoyed hearing from NRCB who gave a lot of information and had a helpful Q&A session.

9.8 Kneehill Regional Partnership midterm refresher and training session: was attended by several Councillors. They felt it was worth the time but hoped for a different speaker next year as they’d heard from the same speaker for many years.

Councillor Christie presented 9.9, a report on Community Futures Wildrose. He reported that the RRRF loans have seen a 60% repayment rate, much better than the expected 35%. This is CFWR’s 35th anniversary and he noted that it’s amazing to see the stats showing CFWR’s work in the County.

9.10 Ag Service Board Conference was attended by Councillor Christie, in Lethbridge. He learned about a school that has 2 acres on which students learn to take care of livestock, garden, and process their produce. He noted that drought has become a major conversation at each conference he’s attended lately; that especially in Southern Alberta, it will be a very difficult summer if moisture is not received soon. The Council and Committee Reports were received with all in favour.

At 1 pm Council discussed item 5.1.2, Subdivision Extension Request, presented by Barb Hazelton, Manager of Planning & Development, concerning the Badlands Motorsport Resort. BMR has had several setbacks to their project moving forward and meeting subdivision conditions and therefore is asking for a one-year extension: “The applicant is finding the timeline to raise the security for the road challenging to meet. The applicant is requesting a 1-year extension to provide some additional time to raise these funds.” BMR has already been granted a three-year extension on January 30, 2020.

Administration noted that the County has typically granted one-year extensions in situations that may require an extension. Reeve King suggested granting a two-year extension to prevent this item from returning to Council’s agenda next year, and realistically realizing it may well take more than one year. Deputy Reeve Wittstock agreed and noted that much of the delay has not been the applicant’s fault and that now the matter is being held up in the court system and waiting on multi-jurisdictional approvals.

Councillors Cunningham and Fobes were willing to grant a one-year extension for consistency but voted against a two-year extension.

Agenda Items 5.2.1 was a Request for Decision on Policy 1-32-1, Haying on County Road Allowances. The purpose of the policy was stated: “to establish a policy that will allow the salvage of hay/grass on municipal road rights-of-way by agricultural producers within Kneehill County” and “to co-operate with local farmers and ranchers in order to allow them to salvage hay and grass for their own use.” Because Council approved a second summer mowing on the edges of roadsides for weed control, this policy was up for amendment. Council voted to reorder the policy but did not make changes to the amendments proposed by Administration. Administration amended dates since there is a second mowing, and added that “where favourable conditions exist, bales are to be removed as soon as possible and within three days of baling.” The public will be informed of the change through the County’s social media and advertisements in The Capital. The policy amendments were approved unanimously.

On the Council follow-up action list, Reeve King asked Mr. Ziehr for an update on the Huxley lighting and wastewater project. He replied that the first draft was finalized in mid-January and there’s another document to come in early March.

Councillor Fobes had asked for 2023 budget actuals on December 12th and wondered if they were ready yet. CAO Haugan replied that the book year-end is not finished until the end of January, the County is not fully resourced and hasn’t been for some time and therefore the 4th quarter variance report will be ready in one month.

The Council follow-up action list was accepted with all in favour. No motions were coming from Closed Session and Council adjourned the meeting at 2:02 pm. The next Regular Meeting of Kneehill County Council is scheduled for February 27, 2024.