Preserve the Pretty River or Dig a Gravel Pit?
By Don Avery
On April 4, 2018, The Blue Mountains Committee of the Whole unanimously rejected the application of the Gibraltar Sand and Gravel Company for an amendment to the Official Plan and Zoning Policy. However, 12 days later this decision was shelved when the full Council (all seven members) sent the application back to the town’s Planning Department for further study and community input. The Friends of the Pretty River Valley, with its anti-pit petition signed by over 1085 local residents clearly caught the attention of our councillors. Will they also provide a catalyst for a broader debate over Blue Mountains environmental priorities during the civic elections of 2018.
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LESSONS FROM ESCARPMENT HISTORY
There are a number of ways that an historical perspective can provide the context for understanding the above land use debate in The Blue Mountains. First, there was the political and social consensus associated with the 1973 passage of the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act “to provide for the maintenance of the Niagara Escarpment and land in its vicinity substantially as a continuous natural environment and to ensure that only such development occurs as is compatible with that natural environment.” Second, the Pretty River Valley was an integral part of this evolving Niagara Escarpment system. The famous Gertler Report (1968) praised it for having “some of the most striking scenery along the escarpment;”1 while a major NEC 1979 report about the exclusive Escarpment Natural category, gave the Pretty River Valley park the highest score of all such properties in Grey County.2 In addition, a follow-up visual impact study recommended that all new development, residential and industrial, should follow strict rules to ensure that land uses with “negative visual elements should not be introduced into the Pretty River Valley.” Third, prior to the passage of the 1985 Niagara Escarpment Planning Act, the original lands allocated to the NEP were reduced by almost 63 percent. As a result, responsibility for protecting escarpment lands was shared by the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC), and adjacent municipalities (now 22), with the highest percentage of these detached lands located in Grey County. To ensure that “a continuous natural environment” was safeguarded, the NEC established the standards of protection for all escarpment lands, with the expectation that its municipal partners would provide equivalent or superior preservation programs. Yet, by 2009, there were 8 licensed aggregate companies in the area, with another twenty licensed operations in both Grey Highlands and West Grey, while neighbouring Clearview Township (Simcoe) has 16 pits and 2 quarries of its own.3
GENESIS OF A CRISIS
On 15 May 2016 there was a public meeting at the Thornbury civic offices to discuss the application of the Conn Pit for an expansion of its original pit–holding licence No. 4945 under
the 1990 Aggregate Resource Act. The owners of this property were listed as Eden Oak (subsequently changed to 2223117 Ontario Inc. -Gibraltar Sand & Gravel Company) that was represented by the high-profile consulting company McNaughton, Hermsen, Britton, Clarkson Planning Ltd. While well-established provincially, MHBC’s most famous case in the Blue Mountain region occurred between 2002 and 2013 when it represented Georgian Aggregate & Construction Inc. in its long struggle for the controversial expansion of its Walker Duntroon Quarry.
The owners of Conn Pit commissioned MHBC to prepare a series of specialized reports required by the Aggregate Resource Act, and by the Planning Departments of Grey County and the Town of the Blue Mountains. By 15 May 2016 MHBC president Brian Zeman began a two-pronged attempt, at both the county and local level, to obtain amendments to the respective Official Plans. Once this strategy was successful, Conn Pit could apply for a new site licence under the provincial Aggregate Resources Act, and greatly expand its level of gravel/sand extraction.
On the other side of the ideological divide was a collection of landowners and environmentalists, including members of the Blue Mountain Watershed Trust (Don Avery, Blanka Guyatt, Peter Tollefsen). During the boisterous public meeting of 15 May 2016, this group bitterly criticized the MHBC proposal and the actions of the Town’s planning department. Many of these arguments were later consolidated through the efforts of the Friends of the Pretty River Valley, whose anti-pit petition was signed by over 1085 residents of the Blue Mountain region and was presented to the Town of the Blue Mountains Committee of the Whole in November 2016 under the banner “Preservation not Devastation.” As spokesman for the group, Ian Sinclair, also circulated a series of hard-hitting messages to Council members about the long term environmental and economic benefits of preserving Pretty River’s natural beauty and wonderful four-seasons recreational facilities with its 120 km of trails, outstanding woodlands and beautiful vistas that could provide the catalyst for “the Town of the Blue Mountains to achieve long term sustainable success.”4 In contrast, Sinclair claimed this bright ecotourist future was threatened by the Gibraltar Pit expansion: “The park would be devastated -projected pit life is 60 years, operating six days a week with a projected increase of truck traffic of plus 44 trucks per day.”5
On 4 April 2018 the agenda of the ToBM Committee of the Whole included five deputations speaking on the Gibraltar Pit expansion. One of these was Brian Zeman, president of the MHBC and an expert on the aggregate issues, who on March 22 had convinced the Council for Grey County to pass Amendment 135 of the Official Plan and associated zoning regulations. Not surprisingly, Zeman used many of the same arguments in his Thornbury presentation: the consistency between the application and the Provincial Policy Statement [ignoring the Town’s Official Plan] and the apparent endorsement by ten government agencies of the Gibraltar project [due to his years of lobbying.] His case was greatly enhanced by the ToBM Report PDS 18.18 that declared “Planning Staff are satisfied that the proposal is consistent with the intent and direction of the Provincial Policy Statement and both the County and Town Official Plans …[and] recommends approval.
In contrast, the other four speakers Ian Sinclair, (Friends of the Pretty River Valley), Donald Avery (researcher, author), Dave Loopstra (Friends), Karen N. (homeowner) raised a wide-range of concerns:
- Was there any provision for the protection of the regionally significant forests located on the southeastern side of the proposed site?
- Why should the application be considered as an expansion when it was an entirely new operation after ten years of inactivity?
- Would complaints about dust, noise, and road safety be addressed?
- Had the hydrology/ water level concerns raised by Grey Sauble Conservation been resolved?
- Did Gibraltar (Conn) Pit have a satisfactory performance record for implementing progressive rehabilitation programs?
Finally, members of the Town of Blue Council were asked to consider the following options: provide encouragement for an extractive industry with a terrible environmental track record; or preserve and enhance the Pretty River Valley provincial park for the people of this region, and visitors attracted by its ecotourist opportunities.
After prolonged debate the five members of the Committee of the Whole rejected the “Official Plan amendment to designate a portion of the subject lands from Rural to Mineral Resource Extraction Area…and to rezone a portion of the subject Lands from General Rural…to Extractive Industrial (MA), to permit expansion of the Gibraltar Pit.” In making this decision, councillor Michael Martin indicated he was also sending a message to Owen Sound and Queen’s Park about local priorities when gravel pits were concerned. In the post-decision celebration Sinclair observed that the controversy “has hit a nerve in our community …that the application will decimate the environment.”
BACKLASH AND REASSESSMENT
On 11 April, David White of Devy Smith Frank, the legal firm representing Gibraltar Sand and Gravel, sent a vigorous protest to the Town of the Blue Mountains about the decision against his client. White began his letter by asserting (incorrectly) that Council’s action ” is not consistent with the Provincial Policy Statement…[It] is ignoring the Town’s Official Plan…and is also ignoring the policies of the County Official Plan.” He launched a personal attack on members of Council for allegedly embracing a “not in my backyard” syndrome …contrary to Provincial Policy.” White dragged out the myth about aggregate shortage in the Township, and that the ToBM was not “contributing its fair share of the aggregate production.”6 Behind the scenes the Organization of Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, and the major aggregate companies were also determined that the Thornbury decision would not establish a negative precedent towards aggregate operations throughout the province.7 In this campaign, it appears they had support from the Planning Departments of the town of The Blue Mountains and Grey County since both had originally supported Official Plan Amendments and endorsed the Gibraltar Pit expansion.
On Monday 16 April, the Council meeting began with two deputations: one by Donald Avery, representing the Friends of Pretty River Valley, and Brian Zeman, president of MHBC. In the end, Council by a unanimous vote chose another option: to send the Gibraltar Pit file back to the Planning Department for a renewed study that would involve extensive community consultations.
Clearly MHBC/Gibraltar managed to overcome their stinging defeat of April 4 by having the case shifted from the political arena to the town’s Planning Department, their ally. On the other hand, Council clearly did not support a recycled version of the controversial Planning Staff report and appeared anxious that serious recommendations should be forthcoming from local groups.
Friends of the Pretty River Valley?
For those landowners who expected a quick victory, Council’s decision to delay and deliberate was disappointing. On the positive side, the ToBM Council was obviously impressed by the number of people who submitted specific written grievances (35), by the size of the pro-conservationist audience on 4 April, and by the resolve of the Friends of the Pretty River Valley to protect this unique scenic and recreational area from aggregate mining.
On April 18, the Friends filed a Recall Notice of Appeal with the Director of Planning for the County of Grey “respecting the Adoption of Amendment No. 135 to the County of Grey Official Plan …[which] constitutes bad planning.”8 Significantly, at the same time legal counsel for the town of The Blue Mountains was making similar arguments in a submission that also dismissed Amendment 135 as premature and ill-considered, particularly in dealing with the regionally significant woodlands within the proposed pit expansion area, and the redesignation of the subject lands to “Mineral Resource Extraction with Exceptions.”9 Whether the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal will decide that these two appeals have merit remains uncertain, but the odds are favourable.
WHAT’S NEXT IN THE GIBRALTER PIT CONTROVERSY
The stipulation under the NEPDA about the protection of the Niagara Escarpment “and land in its vicinity,” remains an essential principle. This is particularly the case in The Blue Mountains, with its long legacy of stewardship of recreational facilities, and with its 2016 Official Plan that endorsed environmental principles –“sustainable development, four seasons tourism, minimizing the ecological footprint.”10 Hopefully, these principles of environmental sustainability will be reinforced during the forthcoming civic election and in the deliberations of the LPAT system.
Niagara Escarpment Study: conservation and recreation reports. Niagara Escarpment Study Group(Toronto,1968),Chapter Five 84-90.
2 NEC Library (Georgetown), 240. 1979, NE. Escarpment Acquisition Report, October 1979. Pretty River had a higher score than either Kolapore Highlands or Old Baldy.
3 Jagger Hims Ltd. & D.J. Rowell, Aggregate Resource Inventory of Grey County: Ontario Geological Survey, Report 180 (2009); D.J. Rowell, Aggregate Resource Inventory of Simcoe County, Report No 188 (2013). The level of rehabilitation of pits in Grey County has been disappointing. For example, in the Town of the Blue Mountains, it was 2/19; while in Grey Highlands, it was 10/117.
4 During the past five years Sinclair has hosted the “6 Hours of Gibraltar ” mountain bike relay on his 52-acre property that has provided over $400,000 for the Collingwood based charity My Friends House.” He has also launched, along with some of his neighbours, a forest management program in cooperation with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
5 “The Gateway to The Pretty River Valley Provincial Park If the Application Is Accepted,” Circular to Members of ToBM Council, 30 March 2018.
6 In addition, there were the unsubstantiated claims that ten government agencies “have no outstanding issues” with the Gibraltar application.
7 At its 14 September 2014 meeting the Niagara Escarpment Commission passed a motion excluding all new aggregate licenses from the Niagara Escarpment Plan Area. Almost immediately the OSGGA was informed about this decision and launched its campaign to ensure that this motion was not adopted in the 2017 NEC Review.
8 Friends of the Pretty River Valley to Randy Scherzer, Director of Planning, Grey County 18 April 2018.
9 Leo Longo (Aird & Berlis LLP) to Randy Scherzer, Director of Planning and Development, Grey County 17 April 2018.
10 Town of the Blue Mountains Official Plan, June 2016, 21-23.