A welcome return for friendly faces

Environmental groups happy with recent appointments to Niagara Escarpment Commission April 27, 2004 Carol Phillips The Hamilton Spectator

Barry Gray, the Hamilton Spectator

Former Burlington politician Joan Little is one of a number of environment-friendly appointees to the Niagara Escarpment Commission.

Environmental groups are worrying less about the Niagara Escarpment these days.

A number of environmentally friendly appointments to the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), including Burlington's Joan Little, signify a world of change to environmental groups that have worried for several years about control over the Niagara Escarpment.

The former Burlington city politician is returning as a commissioner to the Niagara Escarpment Commission after an eight-year absence. Not coincidentally, that absence coincides with the period the Conservatives held office in Ontario.

"I really think there will be a new frame of mind," said Little, 70, who served as a commissioner from 1986 to 1993 and then as NEC chairperson until 1996. "The past four or five years have been pretty bad for things being approved that shouldn't have been."

The Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE), an environmental watchdog group, is hailing the recent provincial government appointments of 13 spots on the NEC. They include Ward 1 councillor Brian McHattie as the City of Hamilton representative, Allan Elgar representing Halton, and Michael Collins representing Niagara Region. Little will sit as a public-at-large member.

"These are people we expect are going to support the policies in the Niagara Escarpment Plan, which means we'll probably not have to be looking over our shoulders every second wondering what unpalatable decisions the commission may be making," said Linda Pim, conservation policy analyst for CONE.

McHattie said he's very excited about the makeup of the commission.

"It's a very escarpment-friendly commission, which almost sounds like a strange thing to say because the Niagara Escarpment Commission is about protecting the escarpment," he said. "But certainly during the Mike Harris years, there were a number of commissioners appointed who outright said that their position was that the escarpment commission should be dismantled. Kudos to the provincial Liberals for choosing the people they did."

Little points to the controversial proposal by Dufferin Aggregates to expand its quarrying operations in Milton as an example of the kind of development that should not have been approved. The proposal, which also received approval from councils in Halton Region, Halton Hills and Milton, is now before a joint board hearing of the Ontario Municipal Board and the Environmental Review Tribunal.

There are a total of 17 members on the NEC, nine representing the public-at-large and eight representing each county and region within the escarpment area. They review applications and decide whether or not to approve development plans, based on the Niagara Escarpment Plan. The purpose of the plan is to maintain the escarpment as a continuous natural environment and "ensure only such development occurs as is compatible with that natural environment," according to the NEC website.

Pim said she hopes the new NEC may look at certain issues in a new light, such as the Red Hill Creek Expressway.

It has long been CONE's contention that the City of Hamilton's development permit from the NEC, received in the late 1980s, is outdated and the city should re-apply.

Hamilton Mayor Larry Di Ianni said the NEC staff looked into CONE's request several months ago. "The staff position and recommendation was contrary to CONE's," he said, calling it a "substantive decision" rather than a political one.

Little, who is on record as opposing the expressway, said she hasn't given that particular issue much thought and would have to investigate the legal implications.

The new appointments could also have an impact on a controversial proposed housing development on agricultural land near the southeast corner of Highway 8 and Winona Road in Stoney Creek, which still needs NEC approval.

The new NEC appointments are the first made by the new Liberal government. The NEC came under fire from environmentalists and opposition MPPs during the Conservative years when it was charged the Mike Harris government made patronage appointments to the commission and did not necessarily choose people interested in protecting the UN-designated World Biosphere Reserve.

In a recent statement, CONE charged that "several commissioners appointed by the previous government over the period 1996 to 2003 frequently ignored the policies of the Niagara Escarpment Plan. As a result, during that period, new development crept into the escarpment countryside in clear contravention of the policies in the plan."

But both Pim and Little laud the efforts of current chair Don Scott, whose term ends this summer.

Little was just ending her first three-year term as chair of the NEC in 1996 when the newly elected Conservative government decided it would not give her a traditional second term. She was just the start. Four other commissioners also didn't have their terms renewed, and they weren't replaced for several months. That same year, Little recalled, the NEC's $2.57 million budget was slashed by a third, its staff reduced to 22 from 34 and the Grimsby office was closed.

"I believe the Conservatives had an agenda that precluded funding agencies like the NEC," said Little, who served on the commission during Liberal and NDP governments. "I just don't think they were a strongly environment-oriented government."

Ted McMeekin, Liberal MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Aldershot, agreed that while he was Flamborough mayor in the late 1990s, he and other municipal leaders had concerns about the NEC.

"We had hoped appointments to the commission would be done on the basis of being consistent with the mission of the plan, and that wasn't always there," he said. "It needed to be revisited."

Little said she is particularly encouraged by the others who have been appointed with her. The list includes Eric Johnston, representing the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, Cape Croker -- the first time a First Nations representative has been appointed.

Little said she had been monitoring the NEC over the years, especially in her role as freelance columnist for The Hamilton Spectator, and decided in November to apply on the Internet because she was becoming more and more dismayed that development applications were being approved that went against the official Niagara Escarpment Plan.

"I wouldn't oppose every development just because it was a development," she said.

"If the plan allows something and you don't like it, you just hold your nose and get on with it."

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