Amendment change application goes down in unanimous defeat

It came as an obvious surprise to the more than 100 residents who attended the Tuesday night (May 21) Planning Meeting in Port Elgin, when Council voted unanimously to defeat the request by a developer for an amendment to the Official Plan.

The developer had been asking for the lifting of a restriction on a Significant Woodland and Wetland through an amendment to the Official Plan, that had placed the lands under Environmental Protection (EP) several years ago.

The meeting held at the Plex in Port Elgin saw several delegations presented, where residents articulately laid out their concerns to Council.

Brian Putman, who organized a protest that saw more than 700 people come out on Saturday (May 18th) to ‘Circle the Woodlands’ in question, said that the area was “… absolutely essential for flood control to properties adjacent to the subject lands at a time when we are seeing record flooding.  Our communities need the natural buffer that only wetlands can provide.”  He also said that the Town should have a Climate Change Plan and that the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) indicates that “… the Province must ensure that resources are managed in a sustainable way to conserve biodiversity, protect essential ecological processes and public health and safety, provide for the production of food and fibre, minimize environmental and social impacts and meet long-term needs.  Further, that the PPS directs development away from areas of natural and human-made hazards.”

He reminded Council that, at its meeting of April 8th, it had committed to do a review of the Official Plan (OP) in 2019.  “Given the nature and extent of the development being considered over the next few years, and the sensitivity involved,” he said, “the most thoughtful and considered approach would be to reject the application that is now before you in lieu of a comprehensive review of the Official Plan in coming months. There are several hundred ratepayers, property owners and visitors who are hopeful that Council does the right thing and rejects the Amendment application.”

In her delegation, Patti Phelan, pointed out that elected officials have a duty to residents and not to land speculators. She also contested some of the language found in the current Official Plan as being “watered down”.  “It talks about protecting entire woodlands but is it just looking at the woodlands as a whole or just the properties in question.  It would be helpful for the community to be able to obtain its own Environmental Impact Study which the Town would then be required to review.  The Applicant study is not objective so would the community have that right?” she asked.

Craig Selby, a former Ministry of Natural Resources employee and biologist for more than 30 years, said that he had always encouraged municipalities to ” … think beyond the PPS and to think about what you want for your community.   Southampton is on the list as one of the best places in Canada to visit because of the natural features such as public beaches, hiking trails and butterfly gardens.  The marketing and branding of that can provide enormous tourism, social and environmental and health and well-being and it should be marketed as such.  The previous Councils supported this property having environmental restrictions and it should be be considered as a land-use issue in the Official Plan review. This matter has such high public interest and is questionable in that, if the town staff told Mr. Davidson to apply for an Official Plan amendment, it is a round-about way to have this amendment approved.  The planner, Mr. Davidson, said that the present designation is overly restrictive with respect to the application to the PPS. Local municipalities and authorities have the right to be as restrictive as they want to be to protect natural heritage features.”

“This is a Council in a fairly small municipality in the grand scheme of things,” Selby added, “but we have a lot of good strong values and one of them should be maintaining and protecting this site. I encourage Council to reject this amendment and that will be viewed as a sustainable approach that will be valued by future generations, many residents and visitors who will see that we value our natural areas and that Council cares.”

Laura Robinson, began at the outset by reprimanding Council for not have an audio-visual system that would have allowed the audience to view some slides.  “It was unfair for the audience not to have the same information that Council has and there should be a way to show the woodland visually.”

She also referred to the former public meeting (April 9) hosted by the developer’s planner at Southampton Town Hall, where there were no hand-outs or visuals.  “Is this an entire woodland that we are considering or just individual properties?  I would hope it is the entire woodland.”

She went on to add that, at the April 9th meeting, Mr. Davidson introduced another person (she preferred not to use his name) as a biologist.  Robinson went on to say however, that she had received a CV of that person in question and his credentials indicate that he is not a biologist. “Mr. Davidson refers to the person as a ‘wildlife expert’ but from the CV it is hard to imagine how anyone would say that he could ever give expert evidence. There is not a court in Ontario that would seek him as an expert in the way we understand the way in which an expert gives evidence.  I don’t think we should even accept this wildlife report.  It is not done by a biologist and is not done by an expert in the way that our legal system understands what an expert is.  I can’t imagine anyone writing about a significant woodland in this era without including its role in Climate Change and his report does not include woodlands and wetlands as having a role in Climate Change … and it is fragmented and confusing.”

Robinson reiterated that, at the Town Hall meeting, the ‘wildlife expert’ said he could not access the lands for a full study when, in fact, he was working for the land owners.  She also pointed out that in some areas the forest is too dense to walk through and others are too wet which indicates the significance of the area.  “These are areas you are not supposed to be walking through.”

“It appears from the ‘Environmental Impact’ report,” she added, “that no significant wildlife habitat study has been undertaken and, if that’s the case, this is critical information and making decisions without that critical information is unacceptable.”  She also pointed out that a road-side assessment over three days in the winter does not begin to register or recognize the wildlife that lives in that area. “There are foxes, rabbits and a host of other animals and you will see many tracks of deer, foxes and more.”  Once habitat is destroyed, Robinson pointed out that the animals who lived there then become ‘nuisance animals’ that begin to forage for human garbage and inevitably it leads to an animal being killed.

The final delegation was by Bill Bowden, President of the Southampton Residents Association (SRA) that consists of approximately 400 families, almost all living, or with cottages, in Southampton.  SRA strategic priorities include supporting and maintaining sustainable development and protecting natural resources.  “This application to amend the Official Plan fails on both counts,” said Bowden.

“The subject property has been excluded from development for many years.  Any development there will have an adverse impact on the environment, the immediate area, on nearby beaches and lake water quality,” said Bowden.

“The exclusion was known to the developers prior to their purchase of the land.  The developers knew, or should have know,it was not available for development.  Rejecting the application does not infringe on their property rights – they knew what they were buying and paid market price for land that was not available for development.”

Development (on this property) is not needed to fulfill the town’s intensification objective he added.  “Use of the variance granted for developing a woodland area on the north side of the Saugeen River as justification for development on this side of the river is disingenuous. An exception should not be allowed to become the rule.”

Bowden pointed out that Council had committed to reviewing the Official Plan this year and it is expected that it will include independent advice from many experts engaged by the town as well as significant public participation and consultation.  Developers will also be included in the process.  “Approving the amendment now will prejudice the outcome of your Official Plan review,” he told Council. “The developer’s consultant says that amending the Official Plan does not necessarily open the area to development because any development proposal will then be applicable to any requirements for environmental and other reviews.  “I suggest that just saying ‘no’ is more effective at preventing the camel from getting his nose under the tent.  Your predecessors on Council, and Southampton Council, knew that this area was unsuitable for development and you (Council) know that too. We ask that you reject the application altogether.”

In a recorded vote, Council unanimously agreed and the application was defeated.