Woolwich council, with the exception of Bonnie Bryant, is taking the heat for this week’s OMB decision that clears the way for the Jigs Hollow gravel pit. Residents feel the township sold them down the river, abandoning the fight and agreeing to a settlement that doomed what today is a scenic valley.
Councillors maintain the battle was unwinnable: they settled to avoid a costly and fruitless legal process. That’s probably true, as the OMB has a history of siding with developers over the wishes of municipalities and their residents. Councillors are guilty, however, of failing to adequately assess blame, as this is another mess that can be laid squarely at the feet of the provincial government, which has created a process that bypasses the public interest.
With the Ontario Municipal Board, and indeed almost every other bureaucratic process, the province has set up a system whereby it can distance itself from unpopular decisions, essentially creating a third party that can force through poor policies.
Of course, this is done to allow the few to benefit at the expense of the many, the overriding reason for our political and economic system.
In the case of gravel pits and other unpopular developments, the argument is made that the process is necessary to prevent NIMBYism: if every decision sided with the public, nothing would ever get done, including some things that are necessary. This attitude says the need for gravel overrides the health, safety and quality of life considerations of those who live near pits.
Councillors could have made these arguments, calling out the province for its poor policies and showing more solidarity with the citizens. That they didn’t is a political failure to recognize the long game: using public opinion to shame upper levels of government into changing the processes that undermine democracy.
There’s also a very practical reason for the township to turn down gravel pit applications: the costs are higher than the revenues Woolwich receives. The 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. Again, no mention of that in council’s defense of its deal.
On the horizon is another OMB hearing, this time over the Hunder Developments project near Conestogo. Council turned down the application, prompting the applicant to appeal that decision. Now residents wait to see if the township will stay on course. And whether all efforts to block the development are simply overturned by an agency with no accountability to the public, let alone those who would be directly affected by the proposed extraction operation.
As with Jigs Hollow and other applications in the works, 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.
Today, however, 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.
In that environment, residents are right to be skeptical about assurances that any violations at the newly-approved pit – excessive noise or dust, pollution of the groundwater, unacceptable visual impacts – will be dealt with in a timely manner. That’s usually not the case. Rarer still are orders to cease operation. Permanent closures are beyond the pale.
We’ll have to see those kind of measures, moves that protect citizens, before anyone believes that the parties, the township included, are working in the public interest.