Mid-pen saga a road to exasperation

By Joan Little -- The Hamilton Spectator Mar. 17, 03

The proposed mid-peninsula highway -- also known as the mid-pen, stretching from the U.S. border at Fort Erie and bisecting the GTA -- is the latest local symbol of provincial bumbling.

The province set an unrealistic March 17 deadline for citizens and municipalities to respond to the 179-page draft terms of reference (TOR) for an environmental assessment, posted on its Web site Feb 1. Burlington requested an extension to April 30 to enable its consultants to analyse this complex document. When no extension was granted, it rushed to schedule a special committee meeting for tonight, since cancelled.

Mayor Rob MacIsaac offered to interrupt his holiday to meet with Transportation Minister Frank Klees. No meeting was granted, but on Thursday the minister faxed approval of the extension. His fax touted the many opportunities for public consultation, and stressed there would be no further extensions.

Citizens and municipalities deserve enough time to respond to such a complex undertaking. Burlington hosted a public meeting in February, and worked with citizen advisory committee input and the consultant to prepare a rushed response. Last week entailed endless staff sessions, even delayed holidays, to meet the early deadline. Now the city can prepare the careful analysis it had hoped.

But should it bow in gratitude for this last-minute provincial largesse? No way. MPP Cam Jackson deserves thanks for working on the extension, but Ontario's disregard for citizens and municipalities created the furor in the first place. Issuing the extension two working days before the deadline ignores community needs.

Locally, the mid-pen saga has evoked exasperation. Burlington prides itself on meaningful public participation. But the province appears to decide where it is going, then bulldoze ahead to justify its position, even hosting "public information centres" for window dressing. At its Feb. 4 window dressing, Burlington Councillor John Taylor asked publicly for an April 30 deadline. The mayor followed up in writing.

Many frustrated citizens are pessimistic about effecting change in the TOR anyway, even if they respond, saying their input has been virtually disregarded so far.

The mid-pen has assumed a unique status. Niagara politicians and bureaucrats see it as the answer to gridlock, economic stimulation and a route avoiding tender fruit lands. Its residents are less enthused. Hamilton foresees economic benefits from the tie-in to the airport. Citizens along proposed corridors see it bisecting their communities and harming air quality, a view shared by air experts.

Burlington claims the terms of reference fail to meet the province's own EA requirements and ignore Ontario's own "smart growth" principles, inviting the inevitable sprawl that accompanies highways. Many believe approval of the transportation ministry's "option C" -- crossing the Burlington escarpment -- is a foregone conclusion. It not only crosses the Niagara Escarpment, but fragments North Burlington's fragile rural area.

Why, Taylor asks, are Niagara's tender fruit lands of apparent provincial concern, yet crossing the escarpment (so significant it warranted special provincial legislation and international recognition) is not? Burlington also questions inadequate evaluation of rail and transit options.

And the mid-pen is becoming a political football elsewhere, too.

The Escarpment Link of the Parkway Belt West straddles the brow from Dundas through Burlington to about No. 1 Side Road and Walker's Line. In the early '70s, Parkway Belt planning was ready before Niagara Escarpment legislation, so some sensitive escarpment lands were included in it, to be transferred later to the Niagara Escarpment Plan. In 1989, the province and the Niagara Escarpment Commission agreed on lands eligible for the transfer and in 1998 Ontario authorized it.

But smart lawyers can stymie any process, and that happened to the proposed transfer. From the beginning, rural landowners, with little development potential under Parkway Belt legislation, used the process to try to get development opportunities.

And it's costing us. The first "preliminary" hearing under a Niagara Escarpment Commission hearing officer was June 13, 2001. Since then there have been four more, a dismissed judicial review, and now a "leave to appeal" by landowners, all requiring legal defence.

The latest "preliminary" Niagara Escarpment hearing, on Feb. 27, was a spectacle, I counted 14 lawyers -- eight funded by taxpayers -- from Hamilton, Burlington, Halton, and provincial ministries. Also there were five planners, three from public agencies.

Now there was a new spin. Lawyer Michael McQuaid, acting for five landowners, had filed a "notice of motion" Feb. 19 to postpone the public hearing. Among the reasons cited, he wanted delay until the EA study for the mid-pen is completed and a preferred alignment selected. The next "preliminary" hearing is scheduled for April 29 and 30.

So the mid-pen project provided an excuse to seek derailment of the escarpment land transfer. What other surprises will it spawn?

Former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor Joan Little is former chair of the Niagara Escarpment Commission. She does not identify with any political party. She is a freelance columnist and her views are her own.

Contact COPE:

©copyright 2002 - 2012 COPE

The COPE website was updated October 30, 2012
Website design and hosting by Virtual Image Hamilton: