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Not all wetlands are equal

St. Catharines Standard,
Anne Bell – Letter to the editor,
April 7 2016

What pipe dream underpins Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s claim that it will “never choose between conservation efforts and economic development?”

Paving over a provincially significant wetland is precisely that.

What else can you call it in Niagara, which has already lost more than 90 per cent of its wetlands? Or when you trade off giant old growth black gum trees and endangered species’ habitat for a human-made wetland elsewhere?

Not all wetlands are equal. Biodiversity offsetting should never be used to circumvent policies protecting provincially significant wetlands.

To those who might be swayed by the billion-dollar price tag, consider that wetlands purify water, control floods, reduce erosion and mitigate climate change. These free benefits are valued at more than $51 billion per year in southern Ontario alone. This proposed pilot is not about research, it’s an end-run to open up a protected wetland to development.

Dr. Anne Bell

Director of Conservation and Education, Ontario Nature


RE: Wetlands stall $1 billion Falls development
St. Catharines Standard,
Maryanne Firth,
March 31 2016

The Niagara Falls land where a $1-billion development is proposed to be built could be used as a provincial pilot project for biodiversity offsetting.

The 486 acres of property near Thundering Waters Golf Club includes 13 acres of provincially-significant wetlands that must be addressed before the massive development can proceed.

Niagara Region’s planning and development committee put its support behind the pilot project Wednesday, calling on the province to allow for biodiversity offsetting on the property.

Brought forward by Grimsby Coun. Tony Quirk, the motion will seek final approval from regional council April 7.

The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority board member said it was intended to elicit a prompt response from the province in order to get the development moving.

During a trade mission to China last fall, Premier Kathleen Wynne signed a memorandum of understanding representing significant direct foreign investment in Niagara.

It was announced the real-estate arm of the Chinese government will be a shareholder in the development, which is being led by China-based GR Investments Co. Ltd. and will include both residential and commercial spaces.

In a discussion paper on wetland conservation released last year, the province introduced biodiversity offsetting as a potential policy direction with a no net loss provision – meaning for every acre of wetland decommissioned, one acre would be restored elsewhere.

NPCA provided comment on the paper, recommending three acres be restored for each one developed, that offsetting not apply to old-growth marshes and slue forests and that a pilot be undertaken prior to introducing policy provincewide to determine its feasibility.

The NPCA is not anticipating a response to its recommendations until later this year, Quirk said. He’s hopeful the regional request, which includes the three-to-one ratio, will prompt a faster response from the province to get the ball moving on the development.

Pressing the pilot project should be a priority for the Region, he said, adding a solution should be found “so we don’t have to say we’re not open for business.”

Regional Chair Alan Caslin has met with the proponents several times and says they’re “completely frustrated with their options on what they can and can’t do with this particular development.”

“We’ve got a very small portion of provincially-substantial wetlands standing in the way of progress of this particular project, despite the fact the premier has endorsed the notion of moving forward with the direct investment,” he said.

Caslin called it incumbent on council to do what it can to help with the development and promote it as a pilot.

The wetlands, he said, are located in the middle of an important piece of the development and need to be moved to a more suitable location on site. If the wetlands are left where they are and land is developed around them, there’s potential they may dry out.

Planning and development commissioner Rino Mostacci, who has been working closely with the proponents, said regional support for the pilot project would be an “important step forward.”

One of the questions that has come up is whether the local community supports the development and this would give a definitive answer, he said.

A presentation regarding the development is expected to come forward to Niagara Falls council in the coming weeks, he added.

During information sessions held by the NPCA in the past few months, concerns have been raised from the public about the notion of biodiversity offsetting.

“They have concerns about the accountability of the developer to actually follow through once the promises are made,” NPCA chair and St. Catharines Coun. Bruce Timms said. As a result, the organization is looking at potential enforcement options, such as requiring a cash deposits from developers.

That money would be held onto by the NPCA and used to create wetlands elsewhere should developers not make good on their word.

While concerns were also raised about the ability to recreate wetlands overnight, Timms said this has previously been done successfully on a smaller scale in Niagara.

“It’s very feasible and very possible.”

While he was not necessarily opposed to the content of the motion, St. Catharines Coun. Kelly Edgar took issue with its last-minute addition to the agenda.

“I don’t know anything about this,” he said, adding he felt more information was needed on how wetlands can be replaced and the environmental impact that may have.

“I’m sorry if that research is going to take time and get in the way of a potential investment.”

Welland Coun. George Marshall felt committee was “rolling the dice on both the economy and environmental communities in Niagara with no notice.”

He put his support behind the motion, but said he expected to see more detail made available prior to the April 7 council meeting so an informed decision can be made.

The NPCA maintains that it will “never choose between conservation efforts and economic development,” said board member Sandy Annunziata, a councillor for Fort Erie.

“We do believe the two can go hand in hand.”

Launching a pilot project offers the opportunity to prove or disprove the science behind biodiversity offsetting, which has already been utilized at the local level, he said.

“I’m fully supportive of idea. We need a starting point. That’s what this will do.”