A Commentary by Niagara, Ontario conservationist John Bacher
Posted January 30th, 2018 on Niagara At Large
This past January 24th, 2018, the Memorial Room at the Gale Centre in the City of Niagara Falls, Ontario was packed with about 150 people. The purpose was an Open House regarding a proposed amendment to the City’s Official Plan.
This is Amendment 130, put forward by a private company, GR Canada Limited, and intended to promote a development the company and its supporters are calling “the Riverfront Community” to be built inside more than 480 acres of natural lands in the south west end of Niagara Falls known by many as Thundering Waters Forest.
Opponents of the development were more successful in getting their supporters out. A group of around twenty advocates of the development politely clapped when those who supported Riverfront did so on the basis of economic arguments such as job creation. One generated a few laughs when she said that such prosperity would allow her family to “walk in nature.”
Environmentalists tried to draw a wedge between GR Canada and their consultants. They pointed out that contrary to their reports, the company called for water to be pumped into the wetlands from the Welland River. A loud guffaw went out when it was explained that the regulatory body to approve such a measure, advocated on GR Canada’s promotional materials, is the embattled Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority. (NPCA)
The Riverfront Community is a proposed 120 acre mixed use development (to be built inside the more 480 acre Thundering Waters site) almost all of which is on lands with severe environmental constraints.
These constraints make development approvals difficult to secure.
There was some description by Savanta in the meeting of the down rated wetland as an “archaeological site” and a former “residence” After the meeting I contact the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and was told that what was seen was a piece of concrete, whose origins could not be determined.
Despite one Down Rated wetland there are still eight areas here which are designated Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs) within the proposed Riverfront Community.
Here. all site alteration is prohibited. Virtually all of the rest of the site is an area that is designated under the Niagara Regional Official Plan as an Environmental Conservation Area.(ECA) In these areas development can only be permitted if an approved Environmental Impact Study (EIS), demonstrates there is no loss of ecological function.
A sit-in by conservationists at the site in August 2017 revealed newer constraints that were discovered after the purchase of the property by GR Canada in 2016. The pockets on the site that are not either protected wetlands or ECA lands are Savannah areas with limited tree cover. Such conditions are excellent for rare sun loving prairie species.
During the sit-in. Dan Nardone discovered a Threatened wildflower, Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata). It grows only on moist soils indicating the presence of another possible wetland worthy of protection. Higher drier ground in the Savannah is occupied by another significant species, regionally rare in Niagara, the Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
For a development in which demonstrating compatibility a claim of no loss of ecological function when massive forest destruction takes place, the most bizarre aspect of the meeting was the nonattendance of a critical person: the President and Chief Executive Officer of Savanta, Tom Hilditch.
Much of Hilditch’s prestige is associated with his role since 2015 as Chair of the Committee on the Status of Species At Risk (sometimes called the God committee)in Ontario. He was not there to debate with Owen Bjorgan, who stressed that putting development around a wetland would lead to loss of genetic biodiversity.
At least his nonattendance prevented the digging out of arguments of using artificial trees for roosting bat colonies. Part of Savanta’s EIS this could have been used to refute the impassioned pleas of veteran activist Linda Manson to preserve the intact forests that both shelters and feeds bats at this critical stage in their life cycle.
The defense of the Riverfront development was made by GR Canada’s land use planning consultants, the Niagara Planning Group. Their approach was to stress the inevitability of approval, without attempting to deny loss of ecological function. They failed to mention that the maintenance of ecological function is required by the Niagara Region official plan.
The Niagara Planning Group stressed that the change from industrial to residential designation protected the land by forcing more ecological study. One such discovery emerged in the meeting, that the site contains an endangered Ontario species, the Kentucky Coffee Tree.
The audience included Jean Grandoni. She triggered public attention to the issue of the attempt to develop residential development here in 2008. She pointed out that there had been many past ecological studies when the land was designated for industry. Unfortunately their recommendations to protect the site have been ignored.
Jean Grandoni is a strong advocate of the forest protection and expansion recommendation found in a 2003 study of forests within the City of Niagara Falls urban boundary. It was written in response to the public outrage when the Riverfront Community site’s previous owner and current mortgage holder, Mountain View Homes, clear cut 35 acres of old growth wetland forest in 1992.
The 1993 City of Niagara Falls study also bolstered a point made by one of the leading figures behind the August sit in at the site, Rose McCormick, one of the key organizers of the sit in. This theorist of what she termed doing “social risk out of love”, pointed out that the Savannah area would over time evolve into a mature forest.
McCormick’s knowledge based on living on the Savannah lands for over a week was an observation confirmed by the 1993 study that the entire suite is suitable for forest recovery.
What the sit-in discovered, the presence of the important pollinator species the Dense Blazing Star, also shows that at least part of the Savannah should be perpetuated through deliberate management such as controlled burns. The entire site needs to be carefully managed as a wildlife refuge for rare native Carolinian species.
The proponents of the development showed two versions of the proposal to demonstrate that modifications had been made from the last open house. One was the location of a park south of the rail line.
This park, however, was outside of the original Riverfront-Amendment 130 area. It also appeared that plans to develop and pave over Wetland 7 were dropped.
However, none this was confirmed in response to questions. Rather than giving any good news of a smaller scale project, the Niagara Planning Group repeated its previous position that the development would pave over 120 acres.
The Second Open House regarding the Riverfront Community was a classic case of those who care for the earth and its creatures speaking truth to power.
It is a fine example of what people who follow the path of the Peacemaker call “Peace, Power and Righteousness”.
Let us hope that such informed and purposeful discipline continues and that all of the Thundering Waters Forest lands will remain refuge for nature for generations to come.
This commentary was written by Dr. John Bacher, a long-time conservation activist in Niagara, Ontario, a Greenbelt Campaign leader at Sierra Club Ontario, and a member of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) (link is external).
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