By Doug Draper
Plans to site a major NASCAR-level motor speedway in the border town of Fort Erie has received a major injection of fuel from councillors for the town and Niagara’s regional government.
The speedway plan, which includes drawings for high-speed tracks surrounded by a grandstand capable of seating 100,000 people, received the go ahead with week for a full-planning review from councillors from Fort Erie and from the Integrated Community Planning and Public Works Committee for Niagara’s regional government.
The approvals from the two levels of municipal government to move forward with a full review of the plan (see a related report by contributor Tim Seburn on the Fort Erie council’s decision at the end of this story) has excited its supporters with an eye to seeing it come to fruition has excited the plans, who believe a NASCAR speedway here will draw waves of people from both sides of the border and provide a much-needed boost to a region that has been bleeding business and jobs. But it is a disappointment to others, including environmentalists, agricultural-land preservationists and people living and operating farms on rural lands near the sprawling 800-plus acre site for the speedway.
They see it as an assault on what’s left of the region’s farmland, on wildlife, and they fear it will be a source of noise, air pollution and traffic congestion that could destroy the quality and character of their rural community.
“We are living there,” Sandy Vant, a resident in the rural area where the speedway would go and head of the citizens’ group CARS (Citizens Against Racing Speedway), told regional councillors at the Dec. 9 committee meeting. “We chose to live there. Not near a speedway, and it is being plunked in our lap.”
Vant urged the councillors to take seriously the concerns of the residents, along with some of those expressed by the region’s own planners about the impact such a large facility could have on an agricultural area. Do it as “sign of good will to the people of the community,” she said.
John Bacher, a member of the Niagara-based Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society PALS), tore into the region’s move to approve a “special policy area’ on the rural lands in question for accomondating what one regional planner Peter Colosimo, described as a “special” or “unique” use of rural lands. Colosimo said regional councils have approved special areas in rural areas before for such uses as churches and large recreational facilties, which, he said, the provincial government has allowed through its planning policies.
But Bacher said the term “special policy area” simply “disguises the true nature of what is being proposed here and that is an urban boundary expansion” – something PALS has been fighting to protect farmlands from further sprawl for more than 30 years.
In the end though, regional councillors were persuaded to move forward with a detailed consideration of the speedway plan after hearing from business and tourism representatives who argued it would be a major plus for the region’s economy.
Arlene White, a Fort Erie resident and director of the Binational Tourism Alliance, a not-for-profit organization representing numerous tourist businesses on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, said the speedway has the potential to make the region “a new and better tourist destination” that will shore up existing businesses and potentially create new ones, along with numerous jobs.
Azhar Mohammad, a partner in Canadian Motor Speedway, the consortium proposing the project, vowed that the speedway would create hundreds of jobs and “will bring significant benefits to (the region) for generations to come.
He said he and his partners are not trying to push their way through municipal and provincial planning rules and are willing to undergo a review that weighs all the potential benefits and impacts of the project.
That review could continue well into next year and possibly longer than that, with numerous agencies involved in environment, conservation, natural resources, agriculture and land-use planning submitting their comments.
Residents concerned about the project vow that they won’t be going away either, promising a debate over the speedway that is far from over.
(The following account of a recent heated meeting with Fort Erie council over the speedway plan was filed to Niagara At Large by Tim Seburn, a Fort Erie resident and member of the Bert Miller Nature Club.)
Fateful Night for Fort Erie Residents on Speedway Plan
By Tim Seburn
If the Canadian Motorsports Speedway (CMS) ever does get built, the people of Fort Erie will look back on the night of Monday, Dec. 7, 2009 as a fateful one.
Over 400 participated by wearing stickers, carrying signs and speaking out. In the end an Official Plan Amendment for CMS got a unanimous green light from council, but only after more than 55 presentations.
The Mayor, Doug Martin, missed the show as he was attending a United Nations refugee convention in Geneva, Switzerland.
Those speaking in opposition out numbered those in favour of the proposal by about a three to two margin. Those speaking in favour tended to be representatives of business, commercial and construction interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, and the Small Business Association. Those opposing the CMS proposal included Citizens Against Racing Speedway (CARS), a newly formed grass roots group of residents living near the proposed site, as well as the Bert Miller Nature Club, the Protection of Agricultural Lands Society, teachers and students.
The tense and somewhat disorderly meeting was held at the community centre to accommodate the anticipated crowd. Councilor Shuler seemed to grasp the gravity of his decision saying, “Only time will tell if we got this right. If it’s God’s will, so be it”. The meeting ended around one AM.
Just before the meeting was called to order, a handful of CMS supporters marched into the community centre after rallying at a nearby bar offering free food for the event. One was later tossed from the meeting for disorderly conduct while another was dragged out by his wife.
Most presentations, each strictly limited to five minutes rather than the normal ten minutes, were extremely thoughtful and well prepared. CARS presented a montage of the residences near the speedway accompanied by the music of “Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot” by Joni Mitchell, with interspersed loud roars of a racing car zooming past that startled the crowd.
The spectators heard two divergent futures envisioned for Fort Erie and most listened carefully for several hours. It was clear to both sides that the scale and nature of the proposal places this border town at its most significant cross road to date. Opponents stressed the CMS project was incompatible with a healthy, sustainable community while proponents focused on the direct employment and secondary commercial activity expected to be generated.
As the project would be unable to fully comply with the Provincial Policy Statement or the “Place to Grow” plan of the province, Town staff are recommending exempting CMS by the creation of a Special Policy Area. Concerned with infrastructure capacity, and the probability growth elsewhere in Fort Erie would be stymied, the Planning Department decided to limit the commercial development component to 75,000 square feet. It is not clear yet how the commercial buildings planned for Sunset Drive, and intended to help mitigate noise pollution, could be affected by this decision.
Jesse Mason, partner with CMS, spoke about the number and types of events that were planned as well as traffic management plan. In his presentation he noted that 150 – 180 event days are planned but that the speedway would remain in operation 365 days per year, making racing surfaces available for rent on non-event days.
Azhar Mohammad, speaking on behalf of the CMS investors group, mentioned the financial situation in Dubai and the costs associated to hiring 85 consultants to date. He noted the Official Plan Amendment decision was an important signal to CMS investors.
Individual Comments of Councillors
Councillor M. Lockword recalled hearing “They’re at the Post” when she lived near the Fort Erie Jockey Club as a child, and the sounds of Crystal Beach Park before it closed. She said she wanted to bring back the sounds of life, work and play back to Fort Erie. She whole-heartedly supported the proposal.
Councillor Richard Shuler was more cautious. He recalled previous lost opportunities for economic development in Fort Erie. He recognized there are always costs for development and recalled the deaths and injuries occurring on the railway over the year, and the noise produced by Horton Steel and Eurocopter. He noted Fort Erie is relying on the experts at the various agencies and at the Region to do their job properly, and that “the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) is where this ultimately belongs”. He concluded by saying, “time will tell if we got this right. If it’s God’s will, so be it”.
Councillor Bob Steckley indicated he had done extensive homework researching this proposal. He felt benefits and concerns were both overstated. He noted part time employment has helped many Fort Erie students get post-secondary education. He noted businesses are closing in Fort Erie and hoped the CMS proposal might help get our emergency room back and that, bingo, the slots and the Jockey Club might benefit from increased tourist traffic. He indicated he did not take the concerns of residents opposing CMS lightly and felt they could trust that the responsible agencies with the expertise would protect their interests.
Councillor Noyes cited the rates of unemployment and social assistance in Fort Erie. She noted the many ministries still involved that need to approve this proposal and stated the “daunting number of questions that remain make this far from a done deal”.
Councillor Sandy Anunciata called himself “pro-business and anti-red tape” and that he was sensitive to the economic climate. He felt the proponent would hold to the requirements placed on them.
Councillor Tim Whitfield chaired the meeting sternly and did not offer comments. He cut short Sandy Vant, the Chair of CARS and the first presenter, from speaking further at the onset of her presentation as he felt her remarks were becoming too disrespectful to council. He expelled two supporters of the speedway for shouting and regularly hammered his gavel to prevent cheering and clapping when the audience thought important points were scored. At several points he warned Councilor Noyes to limit her questions to points of clarification and to not engage in debate with presenters.
(See a related story on this issue by contributor Tim Seburn by scrolling down to the bottom of Niagara At Large’s home page and clicking on the words – older entries.)