Public Meeting on proposed development draws larger crowd than expected

On Tuesday morning, April 9th, a public meeting was held at Southampton Town Hall regarding a proposed amendment to Saugeen Shores Official Plan for Council to remove the Environmental Protection (EP) restriction that was put in place by a previous Council.

The EP restriction disallows any housing development on the Significant Woodlands bounded by Huron, Bay and Albert Streets in Southampton for which the developer wants to see an amendment to the Official Plan (OP) that would remove the restriction.

The town of Saugeen Shores is to undertake a review of the Official Plan beginning this year (2019) but the planner for the developer would like to see an amendment to the current OP before the review starts.

                                Residents crowded in to Southampton Town Hall for Public Meeting

Despite what many residents said they considered an inconvenient time and date for the public meeting, given that many of the residents who will be impacted are ‘summer residents’ who are not yet in the community and ‘snowbirds’ who have not yet returned from winter vacation time, the meeting drew approximately 100 residents or more.  The number appeared to take the meeting organizers, who were the developer’s planner and wildlife expert, by surprise in that there was no seating provided, no sound system and no projection of maps and charts.  At the last minute, chairs were pulled out.

    (L) John Morton of AWS and planner Ron Davidson

Residents listened to John Morton, owner of Aquatic and Wildlife Services (AWS) hired by the developer, who reiterated basically what he had presented at the Saugeen Shores Town Planning meeting.  According to Morton, he had done a preliminary Environmental Impact Study (EIS) based on a ‘drive-by’ examination from his vehicle of part of the lands in question.

“This is dense bush that is difficult to even walk through,” said a resident, “therefore, how can you make the observation that there may or may not be endangered species or anything else when humans find it difficult to get in there in the first place.”

Morton agreed that portions of the land are dense bush.  As at the town planning meeting, he deferred to the fact that he couldn’t access the area due to portions being ‘privately owned’.

When asked why he couldn’t do an on-site study when the lands were owned largely by the developer, there was a bit of contradiction when Morton said he was not working for ‘the clients’ but then at the end of the meeting said he was employed by the developer.

                             John Morton, owner of Aquatic and Wildlife Service, addressed residents

He admitted that he did not know what wildlife existed in the Significant Woodland or, if there was wildlife, if there were species at risk that might be in the habitat. He also said that no other municipality that he knew of had the Environmental Protection (EP) restriction in place for Significant Woodlands that Saugee Shores did and that it was a unique position taken by the town.  Morton kept referring back to the Significant Woodlands located on the north side of the Saugeen River as a similar situation and how an amendment had removed the EP designation in 2012 so that development there was allowed.

Davidson added that, “In the past five years, there have been four or five projects on the north side of the river that I have been involved with and John has been involved in all of them.  If John finds a species that is threatened or endangered and there are seven natural heritage features that are identified, they must be protected.  So, no way does this policy (amendment application) mean that these lands are going to be developed but it just means that through the process and special studies some lands will be developed.”

Davidson added that there was no specific development proposal to present to the residents. “John has done a small Impact Study for a small portion of the lands and what it demonstrates is that a small portion of the lands can be developed.  If this is approved then an Impact Study will be done for all of the lands.  In 2012, Council did the same study of Significant Woodlands and said ‘we don’t need this restrictive policy’.

(For convenience, we have revived the 2012 issue as background)

Resident John Willetts raised the question about the Official Plan review which begins this year (2019) and that fact that, when the original zoning was done, the SVCA said the area was deemed a Significant Woodland and Wetlands and Council of the day approved it as Environmental Protection (EP).  “Can you explain about the contiguous forest and how it impacts wildlife?” he asked.

Morton said that amphibians are one of the biggest forms of wildlife that use contiguous woodland for habitat and that, if trees are cut interrupting a corridor, it would have an impact.  “There are all kinds of species such as frogs that are difficult to identify that go back and forth in a contiguous forest.”

From the residents who attended the public meeting, there were many ‘hard-hitting’ questions for Morton and the planner, Ron Davidson, but more so for Morton of AWS as residents continued to express concerns about the environment.

Morton said that a petition that had been circulating among residents to stop develop was “false and misleading”.  “The Wetlands we looked at meet the provincial criteria for significant delineation.  The woodlands area on the north side of the Saugeen River were Projects 1 and 2 and this is Project 3 which meets the standards of 1 and 2.”

He said that there may be bird and butterfly habitat on the land but that it does not meet the criteria as laid out by the Province of Ontario.  “Take the Monarch butterfly for instance.  According to the province, there is no Monarch migratory path or habitat beyond 5Km from Lake Erie and, therefore, there is no negative impact to them when considering this Significant Woodland.  We are just following the policy of the province.”

                         Kerry Jarvis (green jacket)

At this, Kerry Jarvis a Monarch Butterfly expert who founded the Butterfly Gardens of Saugeen Shores, stood to disagree with Morton.  “Saugeen Shores is on a second Monarch butterfly causeway that runs from Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula through Saugeen Shores.  In 2018, our group of volunteers tagged some 900 Monarchs and they definitely fly through this significant woodland with thousands being reported roosting in this area … and the Monarch is on the world’s endangered species list.”

Morton said that regardless the Province sets out the criteria and it does not recognize any further than 5km from Lake Erie for Monarch butterflies.

When asked if the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority (SVCA) had completed an exploration of the area, Morton replied that the SVCA was not required to do an on-site visit.

Among those who questioned Morton was Craig Selby, a biologist with over 30 years with the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). “The Town has this restrictive policy in place and a municipality is allowed to have that policy. When I was with the MNR, we in fact encouraged municipalities to retain Significant Woodlands and Wetlands.  We encouraged municipalities to NOT fragment those areas and this is an example of what will happen. If the municipality decided it wanted to have a higher bar then the Councilors who made that decision, in my mind, did the right thing. I would indicate that this should have been done through the Official Plan five-year review because of two things:

  • We had a Council that said this is a very important site that should not be developed and should remain an important natural area.  This is also an important issue that should be looked at in review when seasonal residents who are here.
  • This is a natural area in Southampton that should be saved for the future.  Today, when Climate Change is now critical, this is a generational issue.

As a manager with MNR, we always encouraged municipalities to take the higher bar for environmental protection.”

Questions then began to come forward ‘fast and furious’ from the floor.

Q>  “You are talking about urban intensification and yet you are saying that it will have no impact on the environment?  We just keep chipping away at these areas and those animals who are there, if not endangered now, will be.  How do you know that you are not breaking forest linkages?”

“I’m not denying that,” said Morton. “The woodlands are deemed just that, woodlands.”

Q> A resident then asked the question of the planner (Davidson) for the developer, George Durigan, and his plans for the other nine properties, how many were zoned EH.  Ron Davidson replied that at least 60 per cent of some of the lands were designated EH.  He said that Morton would put forward his recommendations to the SVCA who could then either agree or disagree or change a boundary.

Q> Another resident said that he believed the applicant/developer thought the Environmental Hazard (EH) designation would be removed or shrunk on the lands that he was purchasing.  “I think it would be likely that you (Davidson) have counseled your client as to the possibility of re-designating the EH and re-zoning for development.”

Davidson replied, “It’s possible ”  He also confirmed that his client has purchased five lots and has tied up the others but that he did not know why.

Q> “Are you aware that the County of Bruce has completed an MCR (Municipal Comprehensive Review) that includes intensification strategies, remediation strategies, employment strategy, an analysis to justify any loss or changes to natural heritage systems or agricultural expansion study if the town is exploring any development on EH land?  The MCR is a requirement of the Ontario Government.”

Davidson said he did not understand the question as concepts can differ.

Q> “Who is benefiting from this whole thing?  Why do we not learn from our mistakes?  Let’s leave this pocket of woodland as part of what makes Southampton unique.”

Q> Another raised the point that, according to the Official Plan and its restriction, Saugeen Shores has a higher standard than is required by the Province.  “We have a right to retain that standard that is part of the Official Plan. Studies just lower the bar and encourage development that, in turn, continues to lower the bar and that is wrong.”

Resident Paul Salter had another outlook.  “There are always consequences of development. I just want to suggest that, if the Town allows any development on this land, that a dollar contingency of millions of dollars be put in place as a condition to remediate the area in the future if ever needed.”

“There are things you could do 20 years ago that you cant do today,” said Morton.  “It’s not just woodlands.  It’s building groins along the Lake Huron shoreline; filling in wetlands – a lot of those things. Policies evolve over time and there are going to be lots of policies coming down the road. Whether it’s dealing with endangered species; dealing with significant woodlands.  Looking at the woodlands north of the Saugeen River, they did not meet the ‘Significant’ criteria set out by the Province.”

A resident pointed out that it was said Saugeen Shores has the right to maintain a higher standard and yet “… the studies, the EIS and the plan to change the Official Plan is just simply lowering our municipal standard to the provincial standard. So, i don’t see how your documents in any way look at what we are trying to do to maintain a higher standard which is part of our official plan.  The discussion about the wildlife and trees is awesome but we are also looking at where we live from a recreational perspective and an aesthetic perspective but those are not counted at all.  If you look at ‘significant’ forest land, we could simply look out the window and say that every tree should be cut down as they are not part of a significant forest and that would be devastating.  Therefore, these studies just lower the bar and allow for development in an area designated for No Development – and that’s wrong.”

Q>  What would this mean to the beach? What would the impact be?

Morton said that it was not his area of expertise but there are polices in place for off-site hydrology issues.

Q>  Is this falling on deaf ears?

Davidson replied that it was not.  “We are being paid by the developer to be here. We will be discussing this with the developer and where we should go from here.  This will end up in Council’s lap and they could put this on the back burner until it updates its Official Plan … there are options.”