Immediately following failed attempts to trigger urban sprawl by a court appeal and numerous amendments to the Niagara Escarpment Plan, Niagara’s politicians have taken a new course. This came in the form of a request on March 2, 2017, from the Niagara Regional Council to ask the Ontario government to amend its Growth Plan as part of the ongoing Coordinated Review of four provincial land use plans. The proposed changes in the Growth Plan would permit what are in effect urban boundary changes through the creation of “Special Policy Areas”.
These Special Policy Areas would all be in the Ontario municipalities of Thorold, Welland, Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and Port Colborne. The motion attempts to resurrect a scheme from four years ago to promote urban sprawl through an extension of the urban service boundary along the Queen Elizabeth Highway (QEW) through currently-agriculturally designated lands in southern Niagara Falls. This was supported by the City of Niagara Falls. But the proposal was dropped in order to secure provincial support for the establishment of the Niagara Regional Official Plan of a “Gateway” economic zone.
The farmlands in southern Niagara Falls adjacent to the QEW are intertwoven in a mosaic with provincially significant wetlands, including a unusual forest, the Waverly Woodlot. It contains the most ancient tall old growth forests in Canada, a rare tract of Black Gum Trees, the oldest of which is 600 years old. It also has important rare Buttonbush communities, which provide habitat for a regionally rare beautiful bird, the Wood Duck.
Agricultural groups had opposed the urban expansions of the “Gateway” in the past, but the Niagara Region removed these objections through a “stakeholder” consultation in which environmental groups were excluded. In a report titled DPS-18-2017 the Niagara Region’s Planning Department justified the proposed “Special Policy Areas” as part of a more “sophisticated” approach to land use planning which avoid restrictive “limiting factors.”
The claims of superior sophistication which justify urban sprawl are belied by a massive land use supply which would not permit urban expansions under the current Growth Plan. In the course of its research for a case resisting urban expansion, the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) discovered that there was a larger area for urban development that had not been reported.
Previously it had been believed that the Niagara Region had a 40-year supply of urban developable land. Now, this land supply has been greatly expanded through the victory of the Town of Fort Eire over provincial government through a court battle contesting an 800-acre area known as Douglastown. Although environmentalists had been lulled into not fighting this battle on claims forested lands would be protected, destructive assaults on this important wildlife refuge in Carolinian habitat have already begun.
In the debate at Niagara Regional Council this month there was only one member, the Mayor of Pelham, Dave Augustyn who voted against the request to the province to amend the Growth Plan. In doing so he cited “the accumulated infrastructure backlog of $545 million just to replace poor and very poor existing pipes and roads.” For the sake of the fragile and unique habitats, it is to be hoped that the Ontario provincial government holds firm in the face of this latest urban sprawl offensive.