Call this Development Plan ‘Paradise’ or ‘Riverfront’, or whatever you want – It threatens valuable wetlands in the Niagara River Watershed just the same!
A Commentary by Niagara conservationist John Bacher
Posted December 4th, 2017 on Niagara At Large
One of the more dramatic moments I’ve experienced in recent times took place this past November at information event for the ‘Riverfront Community development’ proposed for Thundering Waters Forest in the south west end of Niagara Falls, Ontario and facilitated by proposed Amendment 130 to the Niagara Falls Official Plan.
I went to the meeting upset that contrary to recent statements made in an November 17th, 2017 Niagara Falls Review article by Helen Chang, that GR Canada Investments (a China-government backed corporation Chang is a part of) is proposing that protected provincially wetlands be down rated in their status.
I walked towards the display board in the meeting room that showed basic concept plan. As I began to explain that protected wetlands are located within the lands proposed for development, I heard a male voice telling me to stop. I then walked to the back of the room and was told by a security guard that I was now under orders to leave. These orders were later revoked after Niagara Falls City Councilor, Caroyln Ioanonni, appealed to the guard’s supervisor.
I kept quiet for the rest of the meeting. Then, when public discussions stopped, I privately went to speak to the Director of Planning for the City of Niagara Falls, Alex Herlovitch.
I asked Herlovitch what the total figure in acres was for the eight parcels of various wetlands that were recommended for elimination in Amendment 130. The area the amendment proposes to facilitate development on is about 120 acres in extent. (out of a total area of 484 acres owned by GR Canada). He told me that he did not know.
In her Niagara Falls Review interview, Helen Chang told reporter Ray Spiteri that, “Some people (believe) we are developing the wetlands, but in fact we are not. What we’re going to do is not only protect them but we will actually give more buffer to preserve our wetlands.”
Chang’s words are contradicted by both the display boards of the November 17th public information session and by the text of what GR Canada’s planning consultants, the Niagara Planning Group, gave the City Niagara Falls in their “Justification Report.”
Through more careful study following the meeting, I found that a block of provincially significant wetland called Wetland 10 is also threatened. It contains giant ancient oak trees. Wetland 10 is proposed to be cut across for a road. It would link the Riverfront Community with the Chippawa Parkway.
The Niagara Planning Group’s “Justification Report” makes clear that it is their view that the provincial government erred in protecting the eight wetlands which Amendment 130 seeks to eliminate. It disparages the eight wetlands as “fragments” whose protected status “should be removed by MNRF” (Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry).
The so called “fragments” – two of which are actually connected to larger wetland blocks outside the Amendment 130 lands – are viewed by them as places “where development should be permitted.”
Under Ontario’s wetland policy, it is legally possible to down rate wetlands in response to species loss. (The threshold 600 score which makes these areas protected from development is largely based on the presence of rare species).
The wetlands that GR Canada seeks to down rate were only mapped as provincially significant in January 2017. Then mapping finalized the results of field work conducted in October 2016. It was done in collaboration between MNRF and GR Canada’s previous ecological consultants, Dougan Associates.
After February 2017, following GR Canada’s replacement of Dougan with Savanata, the newly hired firm then went out and did wildlife surveys in the areas now proposed for development in Amendment 130.
To make the case for down rating, Savanata would have been required to find a dearth of wetland species. Instead, native wildlife typical of wetlands was found in abundance. Amphibians were identified even during the cold periods of mid-late winter when the studies were done. Four Blue Spotted salamanders were found in Wetland 1. Another was found in Wetland 8.
Reptile surveys also brought impressive results. A Garner Snake was found in Wetland 4. In Wetland 9 a Red Bellied Snake was located. Snapping Turtles, a Species At Risk, were found in Wetland Three and Nine.
Although all of the 484-acre Thundering Waters property should be protected for various environmental reasons, it is important that all the protected wetlands remain off limits to what the MNRF Wetland Policy terms “site alteration.” The Planning Justification Group’s attempt argue that eight wetland areas be eliminated and another sliced by a road, is not justified on the basis of any recent species loss.
If all of the wetlands were properly protected, buffered and linked, the area proposed for development by Amendment 130 would be significantly shrunken. It could shrink from 120 acres down to ten acres.
This could be the outcome after threatened bat and Barn Swallow habitat are fully studied, an adequate mailaise test down to identify threatned insects, a forest corridor maintained from Oldfield Road to the Welland River, and new wetland studies done where a recently discovered Threatened Wildlfower, Dense Blazing Star is located.
Even a single estate lot would still be a tragic assault on an important wildlife refuge, but the environmental consequences would be less devastating if the minimal standards of Ontario law were actually applied which require the maintenance of existing recognized ecological function. Most of the proposed Riverfront development for instance, has long been recognized by MNRF as a deer wintering area. Where else can deer survive the winter in this suburban part of Niagara Falls?
The devastation which would flow if the province agrees to down rate 8 wetlands and permit a road through another, may help for what GR Canada representatives have called a future second phase of the project.
The greater disruption of habitat of a 120 acre as opposed to a smaller, less disruptive developement, would encourage species loss that could facilitate further wetland down rating. The resulting removal of wetland protection through future species loss would facilitate a much larger phase two project. A similar problem of future species loss from any development on the site was well articulated in the information meeting by the spokesperson for the sit in Owen Borgen.
What is most disturbing are the words in the Niagara Falls Review of one of Savanata’s Project Mangers, Kyle Hunt.
He the Niagara Falls Review reporter that all the “high-value wetlands” in Thundering Waters are located outside the lands GR Canada seeks to develop. It is cruel indeed that the lands that provide refuge for the Blue Spotted Salamander and the Snapping Turtle, and three species of snakes are not considered to be of high value.
It is of course fiendishly cruel that at a time when Canada is suffering from a crisis of shrinking wildlife habitat, that this scheme in any form, should be seriously considered.
John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario who has worked on the Greenbelt Review for the Sierra Club of Canada and for the Niagara-based citizens group, the Preservation of Agriculture Lands Society.
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