Niagara’s Wetlands Deserve at least 30 Metres of Protection from Bad Planning and Greed

The Provincially Significant Wetlands in Thundering Waters Forest – in the long-troubled waters of our Bi-National Niagara River Watershed – Should Not Be Paved Around At All!

A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper

Posted February 14th, 2020 on Niagara At Large

Let me segue into yet another call for saving Thundering Waters Forest and the rich abundance of wetlands inside this jewel of a place in our bi-national Niagara River watershed this way.

A look inside the wetlands-rich Thundering Waters Forest in the Niagara River watershed.

At a meeting this past February 12th of Niagara Region’s planning and economic development committee, Wayne Redekop, a member of the committee and Mayor of the Town of Fort Erie, said the following before the committee was about to defer any decision on a request by Ontario’s wine industry to relax rules over what then can do on Niagara Escarpment lands – some of which are designated, through the United Nations, as a globally significant “biosphere reserve.”

Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop believes that in this age of climate change, our region has to do everything possible to save what is left of our natural heritage

“Our interest is obviously in ensuring that we have a vibrant economy,” Redekop told fellow members of the committee. “But we also have an interest in ensuring that we protect natural heritage features.”

“And for as long as I have been here,” he added, “we have heard people talk about what a great area Niagara is to live, to do business and to raise a family. And I am trying to get my head around how do we do that if we don’t have some regard for what people really do think is significant about Niagara. And that is our natural heritage.”

“With all of the stuff that is happening with respect to climate change, the Fort Erie mayor concluded, “with the significance of biodiversity, I am really not supportive of …eroding the natural heritage area that we’ve got in Niagara, whether it is NEC, whether it is the greenbelt, whether it is the wetlands in Fort Erie.  I think we’ve got to keep our eye on the ball.” These words were spoken by a political leader in our Niagara region who 15 or 20 years ago would more often be heard raising concerns about provincially significant wetlands in his municipality standing in the way of the town’s urban growth plans. But times and circumstances have changed in this era of climate emergency and more sustainable ways of growing our communities, and so have the views of our veteran decision-makers.

And we are all better off for that.

That brings me to the City of Niagara Falls, a municipality that, like Mayor Redekop’s, shares the Niagara River watershed, where there is a another mayor – Jim Diodati – who appears to be entrenched in 20th century thinking about urban growth and green places, and who also appears to be as supportive of a proposal to urbanize some of the lands inside Thundering Waters as he was when this controversial development plan first came to public attention more than four years ago.

Niagara Falls, Ontario Mayor Jim Diodati, front row and second from right, with then Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, in the fall of 2015 in Beijing, China, signing a “memorandum of understanding” with agents for China state, to carry out an urban development project on lands in the Thundering Waters Forest.

In recent weeks, members of the public raised concerns again after some work that occurred on the Thundering Waters lands, allegedly at the request of the developer, a China-based corporation called GR (CAN) Investment Co. Ltd. damaged some of natural features, including wetlands.

This past January, compliance officers for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) issued GR a “notice of violation” and a stop work order. Around the same time, the NPCA and Niagara’s regional government received a flurry of emails from upset citizens.

In their notes to the NPCA and regional councillors, some of demanded to know if, at the very least, the developer will be made to respect a 30-metre buffer zone around provincially significant wetlands (PSW) – a zone of protection  outlined in the Ontario Conservation Act.

Port Colborne Regional Councillor Barbara Butters raised concerns about Thundering Waters wetlands at Region’s February 12th planning committee meeting. See video of meeting below for more.

At the same February 12th planning committee meeting where Redekop made his remarks about the need to save what is left of Niagara’s wetlands and other natural features in this era of climate change, Niagara Region’s Chair Jim Bradley and Port Colborne Regional Councillor Barbara Butters raised the matter of Thundering Waters and all the emails that came in from concerned citizens.

Bradley and Butters also referred to a February 7th memorandum, prepared Diana Morreale, Niagara Region’s Director of Development Approvals, to update regional councillors on GR’s plans for urban development plans for the site which, apparently and unfortunately, our regional government and the NPCA are reduced to playing a commenting role on.

For better or worse, approval authority for this development rests with Diodati and his council that, for the most part, have made like a cheerleader for it from the start. To the extent Niagara’s regional government has any control over what ultimately happens to the Thundering Waters lands, I think Morreale’s four-page memorandum is important reading for anyone who cares about this site, and I am including a link for it below. For the moment, I want to highlight the wording in one section of the memorandum that refers to the issue of a 30-metre buffer zone for wetlands.

It reads as follows –

A sign of the times as citizens in Niagara show their support for saving Thundering Waters from development

“Concern: 30m buffer mandated for Provincially Significant Wetlands Provincial and Regional policies do not permit development or site alteration within Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs). Current policies do not mandate a minimum 30 m buffer from PSWs.

Rather, development or site alteration may be permitted on adjacent lands, subject to completion of an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) that demonstrates no negative impacts on the natural features or their ecological function.

Determination of an appropriate PSW buffer width is part of the EIS (currently under review). Buffers ranging from 15 to 20 m are currently proposed through the EIS, with reductions to a minimum buffer width of 9 m, 11.7 m and 12.5 m proposed in three specific areas.   

Concern: No Roads or Other Infrastructure allowed in Provincially Significant Wetlands or their Buffers No roads or other infrastructure is proposed within the PSW.  Two proposed road right-of-ways (ROWs) encroach within the PSW buffer, resulting in the proposed minimum 9 m and 11.7 m buffer widths noted above. The appropriateness of these buffers are under review as part of the EIS. …”

I know these reports are a little technical, but I hope you followed along and got the gist of it, which appears to me and at least a few others to be this. In at least a couple of places inside these sprawling 484 acres of land, the mix of residential and commercial development, which GR and its supporters promise will attract around a billion-and-a-half dollars’ worth of investment and many hundred new jobs, could come within will come within nine, 11.7 and 12.5 metres of provincially significant wetlands.

That is a far cry from 30 metres. How could that be?

This is probably not the whole answer but apparently our provincial government has given the NPCA and other Conservation Authorities across Ontario some freedom to amend the Conservation Act in ways that allow for exceptions to the 30-metre rule.

Back in 2013, a former board of directors of the NPCA took advantage of this freedom to make some amendments, and out of the not-easy-to-decipher legal language that followed, the potential for a developer to build a road or some other infrastructure well within a 30-metre buffer for wetlands in Niagara may have been born.

So here we now are and it is a reality that isn’t sitting well with many citizens in this region who care about saving what we have left of these vital natural features.

“I’m disappointed, Kathryn Crow, one Niagara citizen and a member of the environmental group Green New Deal Niagara, told me in a recent note. “A nine metre PSW (provincially significant wetland) to accommodate a road?”

“I charge all Niagara taxpayer appointed authorities to do their duty by their constituents, and protect our wetlands and natural heritage,” added Crow in a letter she circulated to the NPCA and Niagara regional council representatives earlier this February on behalf of the group.

“Wetlands are the most important ecosystem for protecting our environment. “Furthermore, they protect us from major flooding events,” she wrote. “Niagara has already suffered from two major flooding events in the last three years, at great expense to local taxpayers.”

“Is the $1.5 billion supposedly being offered to us by GR(CAN) enough to offset future expenses to taxpayers due to increased flooding? I think not. “Please do the responsible thing and reject this proposal once and for all.”

I know from so many of the public meetings I have attending on Thundering Waters and issues like it that Kathryn Crow is far from alone in sharing these views and concerns? The question is how many of our decision makers are listening? How many are taking these concerns seriously?

And what are they going to do about it. It is fairly apparent that Diodati and a majority on his Niagara Falls council would go on supporting this developer and what it wants to do on the Thundering Waters site until all of the ice has melted off of Greenland.

Wetlands are also powerful absorbers of carbon that otherwise enters the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. Some of our decision makers in Niagara apparently still do not understand or appreciate that.

That leaves us hoping that there are enough decision makers at the regional government level who will do everything within their power to support citizens across Niagara in their struggle to protect and preserve this important piece of our natural heritage and others like it.

There is apparently a move afoot by at least a few members of the NPCA’s current board of directors to take another look at buffer zones for protecting wetlands. A reconsideration of the rules may come up at an NPCA board meeting scheduled for this Wednesday, February 19th.

Niagara’s regional government will also soon be inviting the public to have input as it begins the process of reviewing and revising its environmental protection rules, and Niagara At Large will be sure to post information on how and when members of the public can participate in that important review.

In the meantime, I want to continue urging all of us to raise our voices and do whatever we can to save Thundering Waters and whatever else  is left of our natural heritage in our region.

A banner place across one of the entrances to Thundering Waters by concerned citizens in 2017. File photo

With respect to Thundering Waters, here are lands that play host to a rich biodiversity of life, and that play an important role in contributing to the overall health of a Niagara River Watershed that is vital to the health and welfare of millions of Canadians and Americans living along it, and downstream.

As for the China-based, GR investors who apparently spent more than $20 million purchasing lands that host hundreds of acres of valuable wetlands and woodlands, when, if ever, did the concept of “buyer beware” kick in?

Did anyone do any due diligence here or was their some working assumption that, come hell or high water, they were going to get approval to urbanize some of these lands. It may now be left up to us to convince them that they can’t build here and will have to take their proposal someplace else where the stakes for our natural environment are not so high.

Stay tuned to Niagara At Large for more on this important issue.

To read Niagara Region’s recent memorandum on this development plan, dubbed commercially as the ‘Riverfront Community’, click on – file:///C:/Users/owner/Desktop/CWCD%2042-2020%20Riverfront%20Community%20Plan%20Update.pdf

To watch some of the February 12th, Niagara Region planning committee meeting where the Thundering Waters issue was discussed, click on the screen immediately below –

For another recent Niagara At Large post on this issue, click on –https://niagaraatlarge.com/2020/01/27/china-developers-issued-stop-work-order-followed-by-notice-of-violation-for-allegedly-disturbing-provincially-significant-wetlands-in-niagara-falls/

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