“The decisions (Regional) Council will make on what Natural Heritage System option to support may be the most important decision this Council makes — one that will either protect Niagara’s natural legacy for future generations or lead to its inevitable loss.” – Liz Benneian, resident of Lincoln and Executive Director and Manager of Environmental Education for Ontariogreen, a province-wide organization dedicated to improving public knowledge on environmental issues
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted July 22nd, 2020 on Niagara At Large
Liz Benneian is right about the importance of decisions Niagara’s Regional Council soon has to make on how much care and respect that we as a community of municipalities, will show for our watersheds, our woodlands, our wetlands, and our green fields and meadows – of what is alarmingly little is left of Niagara’s natural heritage.
Do we protect and preserve what is left of it? Do we work to restore and replace at least some of what has been lost? Or do we continue to employ weasel words and phrases like “open for business” and “we need to strike a balance” to forever destroy more of it with low-density urban sprawl?
These are questions our Regional Councillors, including the mayors of Niagara’s 12 municipalities who share a seat on the Region’s Council, are now coming face to face with as they make decisions about how much weight protection, preservation and restoration of our natural heritage will have in a revised Official Plan that will guide the way the Region, in partnership with private parties and the public, develops and grows our communities in the future.
Earlier this July, Niagara Region’s Planning and Economic Development Committee reviewed what is a lengthy report drafted by Regional staff and consultants on options for addressing Niagara’s natural heritage and environment systems in a new Official Plan.
The information and options outlined in the report are apparently “preliminary” and will be presented or put out to us, in one manner or another in the weeks and months ahead, for more public input before final decisions are made by the Region’s Council.
With so much at stake with respect to how what is left of our natural heritage is protected, preserved or further exploited for urban uses, you can bet that private landowners and representatives of the development industry will take full advantage of any and all opportunities to speak for their interests, as is their right.
That is all the more reason why those of us across Niagara – young, old and everyone in between – who treasures our natural heritage and who know the value and benefits, not just from a health but from an economic perspective – of protecting and preserving it for present and future generations, make sure we speak out and that what we say as citizens is taken seriously by Regional staff and by our elected councillors too.
Benneian, a Lincoln resident and long-time environmental activist, was the only member of the public to make a presentation at the July 15th meeting of the Region’s Planning and Economic Development Committee when the issue of our natural heritage systems came up.
Among the serious items she highlighted in her presentation, which Niagara At Large will feature in a YouTube clip below, were these, quoted here from her prepared remarks –
- “Niagara’s Depleted Natural Heritage; Environment Canada says 30% forest cover is the minimum forest cover threshold. 40% will support half of potential species richness and marginally healthy aquatic systems. 50% forest cover is likely to support most of the potential species and healthy aquatic systems. In Niagara we have 17.5% forest cover. Many large areas of Niagara including Grimsby, Lincoln, St. Catharines, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Thorold, and Niagara Falls have less than 14%. Some areas are as low as 1.6%. It’s important to note this map is from 2011. More has been lost.
- “Niagara’s Woodlands Are In Bad Shape; They are small, narrow, fragmented and don’t have interior forest habitat. The Natural Heritage System will protect the woodlands that exist and will enhance them with buffers, linkages and through restoration plantings.
- “Niagara’s Surface Water Is In Bad Shape; Surface water is contaminated with fertilizer and pesticides from agriculture, faulty septic systems, sewer overflows and urban stormwater. Its quality has been rated a “D” in Watershed Reports for many years. Protecting natural areas and enhancing them, as envisioned in the NHS report, is key to improving ground water quality.”
As a reporter who covered environmental issues for many years for a daily newspaper in Niagara, I am confident that the information Benneian highlighted here is based on solid information compiled by professional research and regulatory bodies.
And it is information that should be disturbing to all of us who want to live in and pass on a healthy environment to our children.
For the past seven decades since the middle of the last century and the end of the Second World War, urban growth across North America, including this region, has been dominated by low-density sprawl that has resulted in ever more traffic congestion and air pollution, loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity and all of the other assaults on our natural heritage highlighted in Benneian’s presentation to the Regional committee.
Over and over again, this highly costly kind of development has been sold to us as a choice we have to make between saving that wooded area or those wetlands and jobs and prosperity.
There are politicians and planners and representatives of the development industry (the kind of developer who has never seen a woodlot or cornfield he or she wouldn’t like to pave over) who continue to make that claim.
Fortunately, there are also more imaginative, progressive-minded politicians, planners and developers out there who know that this 20th century way of thinking is a “false choice.” They know, and there are good, forward-thinking developers out there who have already demonstrated it, that there are ways of building our communities without destroying more of what we have left of our natural heritage.
That is one of the reasons why it was disturbing to see documentation come to the Region’s committee this July 15th with wording in it that, even before the Region reaches out for more public input, its planning staff has already recommended one option for how much protection natural features should get over another.
It just so happens that the staff is showing a preference for an option that may offer less protection to natural features in so-called settlement areas or inside existing urban boundaries, than for those outside these areas.
Benneian certainly raised concerns about this staff preference, and so did a few Regional Councillors, including Port Colborne’s Barbara Butters Regional Councillor Barbara Butters, who has had past experience dealing with planning issues as former member of her city’s council, and as member, several years ago, of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s (NPCA’s) board of directors.
She questioned why documentation on where Niagara should go on protecting our natural heritage should go out for public presentation with a “bias” for one option over another already included in it.
Indeed, one might wonder if the “bias” is there because of pressure already brought to bear by landowner groups and less progressive members of the development industry.
Jim Bradley, Niagara’s Regional Chair and a former Ontario environment minister who sites on the Region’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, told committee members last week that he prefers an open (identified in the documentation as Option 3C) that offers a higher level of protection for natural features inside existing urban boundaries and settlement areas.
“We (as a Regional Council) have a special role as stewards of that (natural heritage) land,” Bradley said. “We have a choice … to be very progressive in this regard.”
This long-time environment reporter agrees with that, and I would go even further than the Region’s Chair and say that at this stage – as we enter the third decade of a 21st century rocked by a climate emergency and other environmental crises, and by a pandemic experts around the world tell us thrives even more when natural resources are destroyed or despoiled – we have no choice.
We have reached what may be a final crossroads and we have got to discard the old ways of planning communities and embrace new ones that include growth and prosperity, and a healthy environment.
No more false choices!
Niagara At Large will continue doing the best we can to keep you informed on the status of the Region’s work on natural heritage systems protections and a new Official Plan.
In the meantime, please do what you can to get informed and engaged in this issue that is so important for Niagara’s future.
To watch and listen to a video clip of Liz Benneian making her presentation this past July 15th to members of Niagara Region’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, click on the link below then on the arrow in the middle of the screen – https://www.youtube.com/embed/RY_1gIdVSN0?start=4974&end=6400
If you are a real trooper and want to watch the entire Uly 15th Committee meeting that begins with this issue, click the following link and move the little red ball at the bottom of the screen from left to right – https://www.youtube.com/embed/RY_1gIdVSN0?rel=0&autoplay=1
This issue will be surfacing again this Thursday, July 23rd at Niagara Region’s full meeting of Council, which begins at 6:30 p.m. For more information on that meeting, and to review a copy of the agenda with the documentation outlining this issue in it, click on – https://www.niagararegion.ca/government/council/minutes/default.aspx
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