Fight to save escarpment gets bigger

Joan Little - The Hamilton Spectator June 23, 2003

Burlington and Halton Region last week launched an application for a judicial review of the province's bulldozer efforts to get a 130-kilometre mid-peninsula highway -- the mid-pen -- rammed through the approvals process. The 30-page application focused on the Environmental Assessment Act, the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act, the Planning Act, Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and "natural justice, fairness and reasonable expectations."

At a special Burlington council meeting last Tuesday, citizens frustrated with the province's meaningless "public participation" process thanked council profusely for pursuing this unfair process in the courts. The overriding issue, they said, was the province's pursuit of a "scoped" environmental assessment, rather than the full review such a significant project is intended to undergo.

Brendan Kelly, co-chair of COPE (Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment) said: "To build a highway without considering the environmental implications is stupid. To masquerade as receptive to input, while entertaining no such intention, is dishonest. But to attempt to circumvent the law by abusing its process is criminal."

Kevin Lee, of the Mid-Peninsula Corridor Stakeholders Advisory Group, raised several issues about the province's process, and questioned the project. It is believed the mid-pen would be a toll highway. He asked, "How would a longer tolled route compete with a shorter, non-tolled existing alternative"? He estimated route "C" -- the route crossing the escarpment in Burlington south of Number One Side Road -- would cost more than $50 each way for a heavy transport truck.

The Hamilton Naturalists' Club, in a letter, expressed concern about impacts not only to the escarpment, but in Cootes Paradise, the Wainfleet marsh and bog in Niagara region, Medad watershed in Flamborough/ Halton, and the Beverley wetlands in North Flamborough. Air quality was also pinpointed, particularly in light of Ontario's commitment (through the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment) to achieve lowered emissions by 2010.

It was the naturalists' club that in 1994 published the Hamilton-Wentworth Natural Areas Inventory, and is currently undertaking an extensive multi-year Natural Areas Inventory with agencies and naturalist organizations in Halton.

Thirty years ago, Ontario enacted the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act. In 1990, UNESCO designated the escarpment as a World Biosphere Reserve, putting it in the same company as the Serengeti Plain and the Galapagos Islands.

A Biosphere Reserve is an area in which conservation objectives are balanced with development, yet ecosystems remain functional. UNESCO reviews its biospheres at 10-year intervals to ensure that they still warrant the designation. Our escarpment was reviewed, and reinforced as part of the world biosphere reserve network by UNESCO last November. This was especially gratifying because an anti-escarpment group had attempted to have the designation lifted in the early 1990s.

But what does the future hold? Burlington and Halton steadfastly support the escarpment's importance. Citizens are equally appreciative. While I was chair of the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), I attended an excellent presentation by staff of the Ministry of Natural Resources on the importance of retaining existing natural (not highway) corridors on the escarpment, and the consequences to wildlife of fragmenting them. Our escarpment is a largely forested corridor passing through the most heavily developed region of Canada. About seven million people live within 100 kilometres of it.

Today marks the continuation of another attack on the escarpment. The ongoing saga of attempts by landowners and developers to derail the transfer of some Parkway Belt escarpment lands in Burlington to the Niagara Escarpment plan enters phase eleven-teen! (I exaggerate. It's only the seventh hearing in two years). A pre-hearing of the Joint Board (composed of members of the Environmental Review Tribunal and the Ontario Municipal Board) begins today at Halton region's administration building.

The mid-pen is playing a role in this hearing. The Parkway Belt plan allowed minimal development -- no subdivisions, commercial plazas or other large developments -- but several landowners and developers have fought this jurisdictional transfer. They want a special study of their lands by Halton Region, the province, and NEC. Among their reasons, they say, is that the mid-pen might affect their holdings. Their applications, filed February 2003, were made even as the Niagara Escarpment Plan Amendment pre-hearing was under way. That hearing will reconvene next month, covering Parkway Belt lands straddling the escarpment brow area from Dundas through Burlington to about Number One Sideroad and Walkers Line. Today's hearing will consider whether their Burlington lands north of Dundas Street, between Cedar Springs Road to east of Walker's Line, can be dealt with separately by the Joint Board.

Will the escarpment survive these unrelenting onslaughts from every direction -- even from the province itself, which set up legislation to protect it for the people of Ontario?

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.

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