By John Bacher
One of the great tragedies in the effort to construct an 821-acre ‘Canadian Motorway Speedway’ on agriculturally zoned and designated lands in Fort Erie is that the scheme rips through the heart of one of the most intact areas of Carolinian forest in all of Canada.
It also rips through the heart of the planning laws that seek to protect it.
The area east of the Welland Canal and between the Niagara River in our region has the largest remaining concentration of the most biologically diverse woodlands in Canada – our equivalent of tropical rainforests. This precious mosaic of farmland and forests, repaired from past ecological abuse through the influence of one of Fort Erie’s greatest residents, the pioneer forester Edmund Zavitz, is now threatened by a bizarre “NASCAR-like” motorway complex – a complex that includes an associated mix of shopping centres, and a camp ground for speedway worshippers.
The current actions of the Fort Erie and Niagara regional council’s in giving planning approval to changes to their official plans to allow the construction of the imitation NASCAR track is a tragedy national in scope. This is being done so the community can become a Mecca for the worshippers of automotive power, targeting 80,000 fans that crave car exhaust rather than wafts of incense.
One racetrack supporter actually described it at a Fort Erie council meeting as a “religious experience.”
The national scope of this tragedy comes from the fact that Fort Erie is actually, apart from the Indian reservations of Walpole Island and Six Nations, the most ecologically intact part of Carolinian Canada. Fort Erie has almost 50 per cent of its rural landscape in natural habitat, largely in magnificent and nationally rare Pin Oak Swamp Forests. One of the reasons for this is that the community’s farmers in the 1950s, notably Bert Miller, founder of the still-standing Bert Miller Nature Club and one of the region’s leading environmentalists reforested tracts of area farmland on the advice of Davit’s foresters in the Department of Lands and Forests.
One of the outrageous excuses that Niagara regional planners gave for approving this development is that since there is so much extensive natural habitat here that the area, despite being designated as “Good General” farmland in their official plan, can’t really be considered good land. This perverse type of thinking would result in paving over all the farmland in Ontario that is actually managed in an environmentally responsible manner.
Bert Miller’s wise actions resulted in the creation of a provincially significant wetland and fishery around Miller’s Creek, a stream named in honour of his 18th century loyalist ancestors. The presence of rare species such as the Swamp Rose Mallow and the Wood Turtle in the Miller wetlands downstream of the proposed motorway caused these lands properly to be mapped as ‘Provincially Significant Wetlands’ and excluded from development although they are within Fort Erie’s urban boundaries. Such wetlands in Fort Erie cover about 1,000 acres in total and have been a big contention for Fort Erie’s Council, which demanded compensation from the province in the form of an urban boundary expansion. They believe that provincial approval of the motorway is the answer to all their backroom wheeling and dealing for such compensation over the last several years.
The let’s-make-a-deal attitude that is shaping the politics of For Erie threatens its precious Swamp Oak forests and healthy streams. Although the wetlands downstream of the motorway within Fort Erie’s existing urban boundary will still be legally protected if the deal goes through and the province does not appeal the motorway planning amendments to the Ontario Municipal Board, they will be polluted and degraded. Approval of the motorway would result in the urbanization of the entire headwaters of Miller Creek. This would make the stream much more polluted and lifeless, prone to spring flooding and drying up in summer. Negative impacts would happen to
the turtles and endangered fish species such as the Grass Pickerel, which find significant habitat in Miller Creek.
There are two different ways in which the Fort Erie motorway is ripping up Ontario’s planning laws While Fort Erie does not impact the Greenbelt, what is happening here is already weakening two other key cornerstones of good planning to protect the environment. One is the imposition of serious wetland protection measures, which clearly prohibit what is termed “site alteration”, development on provincially significant wetlands. These wetlands are determined by a scoring system, which in Niagara, has the impact of protecting large areas of rare Pin Oak forests. The other is the Growth Management Plan.
In Niagara, this in intended to prohibit urban boundary expansions, largely because they cannot be justified by the plan’s requirements that need to be calculated on a regional basis.
Regarding wetlands, the developer lobbied unsuccessfully for a few years to persuade the local Niagara office of the Ministry of Natural Resources to permit the construction of part of the raceway track through a bridge over top of a provincially significant Pin Oak Swamp wetland. In response to continual lobbying however, the MNR eventually said yes.
Then fortunately, the Niagara Conservation Authority correctly interpreted the policy of no interference to mean that having a bridge built over a wetland, which would mean the cutting of trees, was in fact site alteration prohibited by Provincial Policy. Although the developer’s consultant told the Fort Erie Council that the local MNR office was superior to the Conservation Authority, this view was later refuted by a provincial task force headed by Victor Doyle of Municipal Affairs, who recently courageously stood up to developers in Simcoe County with the unusual form of a published letter as a
Now the future of the bridge over the wetland is part of the studies to be conducted under the “Special Policy Area” designation put forward in the Official Plan amendments of Fort Erie and the Niagara Region.
The use of the term “Special Policy Area”, highlights the abuse of the Growth Plan by the motorway. The use of this term is employed in order to evade the problem of the lack of conformity to the Growth Plan. Since there are so many thousands of vacant acres throughout the Niagara region, it is impossible to justify urban expansion on the basis of the Growth Plan. The province is actually currently engaged in an OMB appeal of such expansions. By calling the Official Plan amendments to be a “Special Policy Area”, rather than urban expansion, these tough tests of the Growth Plan can be avoided. In fact, the motorway is an urban expansion, since the proposed facility is being planned for 80,000 spectators, and therefore will be on full urban sewer and water services.
For the past three years the Growth Plan has been the cornerstone of the province’s efforts to protect urban sprawl. It is especially important since apart from unusual situations, such as the Niagara Fruit Belt, and Boyd Park, which protects the headwaters of the Don River, the Greenbelt boundaries are not adjacent to actual urban growth boundary limits. In Niagara the Ministry of Infrastructure Renewal used the Growth Plan to defeat attempts to carve up around 600 acres in south Niagara Falls into five-acre lots serviced on sceptic tanks.
The Growth Plan has also proven crucial for stopping schemes for a sprawling new town at Kemp and Mountain Road in Grimsby above the Niagara Escarpment, and for halting at least for now, planned urban expansions in north west Niagara Falls and in Smithville. The province has shown the determination to uphold the Growth Plan through making OMB appeals, and has so far won every case.
Supporters of sprawl throughout the Growth Plan area see the Fort Erie motorway as their saviour, ripping up the Growth Plan with the force that it is grinding up precious Pin Oak swamps. Sprawl advocates such as those around Niagara Falls Club Italia, are also employing the formula of a “Special Policy Area”, to have an escape clause from the Growth Plan.
Unless the province appeals the amendments to Fort Erie’s and the Niagara Region’s Official Plan in the next few weeks to the OMB, the first causalities of the wreckage of the motorway will be good planning in Ontario.
There needs to be a strong demand for such an appeal made to members of the Legislature throughout our region.
(John Bacher is a member and researcher for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS), one of the longest surviving conservationist groups in the Niagara region.)
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