A News Commentary by Doug Draper
Posted April 11th, 2016 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – To paraphrase an oft-used line from that old Paul Newman movie ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ what we’ve got here when it comes to some of our political leaders and this controversial matter of “offsetting” a natural wetland to make way for urban development is “a failure to communicate.”
How else can we have a situation where more than 100 members of the public show up at a Niagara regional council meeting this past April 7th, and where some among them made arguments against this destructive scheme that are so compelling that a majority of councillors voted to put any approval of it on hold – and yet, some of the same cast of characters who’ve been pushing for this scheme from the get go are determined to try their luck again this coming Tuesday, April 12th at a meeting of Niagara Falls city council.
This time, Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati, along with Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority CAO Carmen D’Angelo and St. Catharines regional councillor Bruce Timms, who is the Conservation Authority’s chair, may have a better chance with the city council of getting a motion approved that asks the Province of Ontario “to initiate a pilot project to allow for bio-diversity offseting of wetlands for ‘Paradise Development’ in Niagara Falls” for at least two reasons.
First, this so-called Paradise Development, backed by an entity called CITC Group (described by some as a real-estate agent for the Chinese government, on land located near Marineland and the Thundering Waters Golf Club and purchased by a corporaton called GR Investment Co. Ltd, is reportedly worth between $1- and $1.4 billion, and it is more likely to be embraced by a council representing a local municipality where it is proposed to go.
Second, a number of the Niagara Falls councillors who will be voting for this motion indicated in media interviews last November that they had no problem with Mayor Diodati and two of the city’s senior staff – CAO Ken Todd and Business Director Serge Felicetti – travelling to China that month to discuss this proposed residential and commercial development with Chinese government agent, with their flights and accommodations paid for by the Chinese government because they saw this proposal as being potentially good one for the city at the time.
So why would they feel any differently now, even though they haven’t got any more information on this proposed development now than they did at the time.
And along with the fact that what is really being asked of the provincial government here is permission to destroy more than 10 acres of forested, old growth wetland here to make way for more urban sprawl, what is most disturbing here is that the public and the people we elected to represent us on municipal councils have not received a single report on this proposal from municipal planners, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources or any other body that should be involved in carefully reviewing it.
During a recent interview he did on CKTB Radio, Mayor Diodati made a number of claims, incliuding one that “environmental engineers” for the developer did their own review and came to the conclusion that the 10 or more acres of wetland in question might die if buildings were constructed around it – so it would be better to try to replicate up to 10 acres for every one acre bulldozed over someplace else.
Okay, where is a report from these environmental engineers on that? What data did they use to come to that conclusion?
We have also been told in a very brief memorandum regional staff prepared and circulated to regional councillors just a few hours before the April 7th council meeting that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne signed a “memorandum of understanding” with representatives of the Chinese government last fall over this development.
Where is this this memorandum of understanding? Why wasn’t it tabled at the April 7th meeting for members of the public and councillors to read before they were urged to vote on whether or not to move forward with this whole thing?
Something has run terribly afoul here when it comes to providing members of the public and those who represent them the information they need to make wise decisions, especially on something as seirous as this – something that could set a dangerous precedent for generations to come over how much protection is left of life-sustaining ecoysystems in a Great Lakes basin that is home to one fifth of the worlds fresh water.
Most of us –and that includes members of regional council – had not even seen a map of where this so-called Paradise project would go until the council meeting last April 7th!
Maybe that is the way they do business in China, but that is not the way business should be conducted in an open and transparent democracy in Canada.
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s chair, Bruce Timms, said at the April 7th regional council meeting he has confidence the developer can work with Mother Nature somewhere else to recreate any wetland, however complex it may be, that needs to be gotten rid of to accommodate this project.
When Harold Kersey, a representative for the developer, was asked by Pelham Mayor and Regional Councillor Dave Augustyn at the April 7th meeting, he if the developer would attempt replicating such a wetland somewhere else first, Kersey said he didn’t think the developer would want to make that kind of “business risk” with their money.
That is as much as saying that the developer has no real idea if recreating the special kind of wetland that would be destroyed can be done, and it is as much as saying that Timms really hasn’t got a clue what he is talking about.
As Mayor Augustyn put it, destroying a valuable tract of wetland before anyone knows whether it can be duplicated to perform the same essential services for wildlife and the environment “is like throwing someone into the middle of the lake without a life guard and seeing if they can swim.”
One council after another asked regional staff and supporters of the project for more details on the project but there were none. A member of the planning staff replied two or three times that he couldn’t answer some of the questions councillors asked because “we are still in the very early stages of this thing.”
“Well then what are we doing here,” asked a visibly frustrated Niagara-on-the-Lake regional councilor and former regional chair Gary Burroughs before momentarily leaving the April 7th meeting after more than three hours of the motion on the table going nowhere.
Indeed, what were any of us doing there with no detailed reports for understanding the potential impacts of this project, let alone whether a request should be sent to the provincial government to play around with something called “bio-diversity offsetting” which is code for destroying a wetland and attempting to reconstruct one like it somewhere else.
“We have killed the whole night and let the public down with this whole process,” said Niagara Falls regional councillor Bob Gale before the regional chair Al Caslin finally called the meeting to an end.
Gale was dead on in the sense that with all the other challenges we face in a region with one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada, bringing this matter to the council without any information to base a decision on was a total waste of time and whatever money it cost taxpayers to have more than a dozen high-paid staff in the room all night.
On the other hand, we learned enough at that meeting to know that no party, including the developer, Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority or members of regional staff, can offer any degree of assurance that – once destroyed – a provincial protected wetland comprised of old growth slough forest and vernal pools can be replicated someplace else for threatened wildlife that need them for survival.
That is all we should need to know to say no to this development occurring at this location and to find somewhere else in Niagara for it that does not involve possibly doing permanent damage to a Niagara River watershed shared by residents in Niagara, Ontario and our neighbours in Western New York.
There are now – on the books in Niagara, Ontario – more than 100 years of lands located inside urban boundaries that are available for development and do not involve destroying what we have left of our natural heritage. So there is no excuse for not working with the developer to find another, more suitable location that will work for everyone.
Unfortunately, some of our municipal leaders and those currently managing the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, are being stubborn about this, making it necessary to do what a growing number of Niagara residents are doing already – contacting parties in and outside of government on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border to make sure this willful destruction of a wetland in an international watershed does not occur and set a precedent for gutting other ecosystems of its kind in the Great Lakes basin.
Mayor Diodati, Bruce Timms and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, and they China-based developers they appear so eager to accommodate may have to learn the hard way that the Niagara River watershed and a Great Lakes basin tens-of-millions of people depend on for fresh water are subject to provincial, state and international rules and regulations that trump activities that may do irrevesable damage to them.
Doug Draper is publisher of the alternative news voice Niagara At Large, a veteran journalist and environment reporter. In 2009, during a gathering in Niagara Falls, New York celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Canada/U.S. Boundary Waters Treaty, the International Joint Commission presented him an award “in recognition of contributions made to Canada-United States relations in addressing transbourndary concerns and in furthering the cooperation between Canada and the United States envisions in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.”
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