As Coun. Mark Bauman noted at this week’s Woolwich council meeting, gravel pits are about to become a big part of the agenda for many months – and perhaps years – to come.
There are currently five aggregate applications under consideration at the township. The most contentious are the Capital Paving bid for an operation in West Montrose and the Hunsberger application in Conestogo.
The former raises the hackles of those concerned about the covered bridge and its surrounding environment, above and beyond the noise, dust and safety concerns that naturally come along with such operations. In the Conestogo case, the gravel pit threatens to send soaring the number of trucks rumbling through the village, as well as negatively impacting the quality of life of nearby residents.
In the normal course of affairs, the cost-benefit analysis would provide councillors with an easy answer: deny the applications. Municipal share of aggregate profits are miniscule, not enough to cover the direct costs associated with road repairs and safety measures, let alone the health and well-being of residents.
Like those who settle in the country then begin complaining about the smell of the surrounding farmland, anyone who moves close to an existing gravel pit must live by the credo of caveat emptor. The situation is much different when someone attempts to establish a pit near an existing neighbourhood, as is the case in both examples.
Unfortunately, the situation isn’t as simple as that. No, councillors will have to weigh the likelihood of their denial being immediately appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, which has a track record of ignoring local decisions in favour of developers.
The poor provincial record of respecting local wishes is magnified in the case of gravel pits, where the Aggregate Resources Act is practically a cudgel, and the Ministry of Natural Resources seen as a defender of operators, not Ontarians.
Of course, we do need gravel, and it does have to come from somewhere. Because of its geography, this stretch of the province is rife with aggregate, as witnessed by the numerous pits already in operation. If every application for an extraction licence was turned down, we’d have to find alternative sources for an essential material.
Clearly, then, we need to find a balance point.
Currently, provincial policies favour developers, putting far too much power in the hands of the OMB. Opponents such as Gravel Watch Ontario say the same is true of the aggregate policies. They also lament the actions of the MNR in enforcing what feeble rules do exist. Fixing those inadequacies would go a long way in reducing the disputes over gravel pit applications.
High on the priority list is the enacting of sunset clauses on gravel licences: hard and intractable timelines for the decommissioning of pits. As it stands today, operators can continue to work an “active” site for years, a favourite tactic for avoiding the remediation now required of pit owners. Such a move would assure nearby residents that the health and safety risks would exist for a fixed time only, an important step.
As it stands right now, even where municipalities have tried to impose sunset clauses, the MNR has simply stepped in and voided them.
Equally pressing are rules to assure quick and full rehabilitation of pits, returning them to the identical state seen before excavation began. Here, too, the record has been abysmal. Changes haven’t been forthcoming.
No, the issue before council isn’t going away any time soon.