This is why we can’t have nice wetlands

OPINION: Two-thirds of Ontario’s wetlands have been destroyed by development and agriculture. Why are we still building so close to them?
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on December 5, 2016
Southern Ontario has lost 68 per cent of its wetlands, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada estimates. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Trafford)

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This is how we lose our wetlands: by the scalpel of bureaucracy, shaving metres off buffer zones and building developments ever closer to sensitive areas via an opaque process.

A move is underway in Wasaga Beach to revamp the town's Official Plan, allowing a developer to build housing next to provincially significant wetlands. Simcoe County council will vote on the matter in January, though it has already approved allocating portions of its growth allotment to the developments near the wetlands.

These areas are crucial to Ontario’s ecosystem: among many other functions, they filter storm water headed toward the Great Lakes — and subsequently, toward our faucets. They also filter runoff from farms and roads headed toward Georgian Bay. The Wasaga Beach wetlands are home to the at-risk eastern hog-nosed snake and to all manner of bats and birds and frogs and turtles.

Such areas are increasingly rare nowadays. Environment and Climate Change Canada’s best guess is that southern Ontario has lost 68 per cent of its wetlands, largely through development and agricultural intensification.

Yet our remaining wetlands are still being chipped away at by developers, enabled by ill-defined policies and aided by councils eager to help their cities grow.

There are four such projects going forward in Wasaga Beach, but let’s focus on one: Eastdale Drive, where a patchwork of land has been determined to be outside the Provincially Significant Wetland boundary (i.e., a wetland area deemed valuable to the province based on a government evaluation system). The developers’ plan is to build 156 housing units across five hectares, sandwiched between the wetland and a major road.

Here’s where things get tricky.

“There is no 156 townhouses,” says Doug Herron, Wasaga Beach’s planning manager. “There's no application in front of the town or county for the 156 townhouses. The proposal for townhouses is more esoteric in the sense that it was required by the county so that they could come up with a projected population count.”

So there’s no capital-p Plan, but there is a “plan” attached to the developer’s application to amend the Official Plan. It’s just not an actual plan yet, in the jargon of city planners.

Put more simply: in January, the city and county will deliberate on the proposed changes to their official plans, which, if enacted, would allow the development of as many as 156 units of housing on the plot of land in question. But no formal building proposal has been brought forth by the developer or vetted by the municipal authorities. Those plans are still in flux; the city and county are just in the process of opening the door for more solid planning. It’s an approval to plan a plan.

The amendment is merely the first of many authorizations required to develop the land, but implicit at every stage is this: the developer has a vision for building a certain number of houses on this plot of land. They’re just not applying for it formally — until the Official Plan is officially changed.


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Encroaching borders

Here’s another bit of planning jujitsu: the developer’s diagram of the property has a “buffer zone” with a fence about 15 to 30 metres from the edge of the wetland. Just how much of a buffer is required has never officially been inscribed in policy, though the Wasaga Beach Official Plan calls for special considerations to be made when building within 120 metres of a wetland. But don’t call those 120 metres a buffer zone, because it is most definitely not a buffer zone, planners insist — although it is a zone that the Official Plan would prefer to leave untouched.

“The redesignation of lands for development and site alteration purposes situated adjacent to Natural Heritage System … shall be generally discouraged,” the Wasaga Beach plan reads.

The distance from development sufficient to protect a wetland is a matter of dispute. It depends on the hydrology of the area (which has not yet been studied for this development, according to the impact study) and the species living underground, among other things. Many creatures spend time outside the bog, sunning themselves and eating. Today they do those things in the woods, but development means they may be forced to do them on asphalt.

“There's a decent amount of information known in the literature about the range of wetland dwelling animals that leave the wetland for part of their life cycle,” says Carl Mitchell, an associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Toronto. “Those ranges usually go between about 100 and 300 metres outside of the wetland. So 15 to 30 metres seems like an awfully small buffer to me for that kind of thing.”

Yet the plan is going forward with the enthusiastic support of the local Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority, even though it submitted seven pages of questions and concerns about the original environmental impact study, in particular with the types of animals that were spotted by surveyors: “no wood frogs were identified — they are present/abundant throughout the Wasaga Beach Wetland Complex. Were salamander egg mass surveys undertaken? Spotted salamanders are known to utilize similar wetlands…”. The comments also insist on a 30-metre boundary — something not fully reflected in the developers’ plans thus far.

“We don't do the studies, but the applicant has, and we're satisfied with their studies,” says Chris Hibberd, director of planning services at the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority.

The final correspondence from the conservation authority notes that many questions were addressed, but adds, “further information will be required in subsequent stages of the planning process to address comments provided in earlier correspondence.”

Speaking out

So it’s left to concerned residents to raise additional questions about it. They operate without a budget, speaking at meetings or making written submissions when possible. They learn of developments mainly via ever-shrinking local newspapers — and though official documents are publicly available, they take a lot of digging to find. And the citizens are getting frustrated.

“You need to demonstrate to us whether it's 120 metres or 15 metres or 30 metres, that the plan you have in place to protect the wetlands is feasible and the plan is working elsewhere,” says Mario Nobrega, a resident leading efforts to oppose development in the wetlands.

The county has a mandate to grow by 20,000 people, and those people have to go somewhere. But wetlands are treasured areas, already heavily decimated in the province. The development process is difficult, unwieldy, and proceeds in small steps. But to make decisions without carefully considering the environmental impact, to discuss allocating portions of a growth budget without a precise vision of how the wetlands are going to be protected, is reckless.

Nobrega says about 100 other Wasagans have joined the cause, doing what they can. They can’t afford to hire lawyers or environmental consultants, so they give talks about the importance of wetlands at service clubs and have organized an online petition.

“Reading between the lines, the January meeting is just a meeting where you get the holy water out and approve it,” Nobrega says. “Where we need to become active is monitoring every step of the way of the development. When you start thinking of planning your community, it's got to start from community level first, but now it's top-down.”

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