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New Woolwich council joins an old gravel pit battle

Faced with the prospect of a larger-scale operation that would obliterate farming in the Winterbourne valley, residents are wasting no time bringing Woolwich’s new councillors up to speed and onside.

What appeared to be a done deal under previous councils, the Jigs Hollow pit is now the center of another controversy as the operators seek to change the deal, shifting to below-the-water-table extraction of gravel.

Following a dispute eventually settled through an Ontario Municipal Board hearing, the township agreed to allow gravel to be mined at the 89-acre site fronting on Peel Street. Kuntz Topsoil, Sand and Gravel, later joined by Preston Sand and Gravel, was also granted the right to crush recycled concrete and asphalt at the site. Work began in 2013, mostly with berms being formed, but quickly halted when tests found groundwater levels to be much higher than anticipated, severely limiting the amount of aggregate accessible, as the licence demands mining occur no lower than 1.5 metres above the water table.

The prospect of the operator seeking a change to the zoning – the removal of a holding provision preventing extraction below the water table – has residents both fearful that the licence will be granted and hopeful that a failure to gain such clearance will halt gravel extraction altogether.

Addressing Woolwich councillors Tuesday night, Winterbourne resident Sonya Sommerville stressed that mining below the water table would preclude any possibility of rehabilitating the site back to its longtime use for agricultural purposes. Instead, the prime farmland would be lost forever. Once such a pit was done, there would remain only a quarry filled with water.

“You’re left with a pit of water that has no life in it whatsoever,” she said.

Under the current licence, Preston Sand and Gravel would be responsible for returning the site back to farmland once the gravel was mined out.

Along with the permanent loss of farmland, Sommerville continued, the operation would likely have an impact on the water available to surrounding properties, both farms and residences, that rely on wells for their water supply. The constant pumping of groundwater to keep it out of the gravel pits could have widespread consequences on land that’s in the Grand River floodplain, she said.

Providing a brief history of the project, fellow Winterbourne resident Jan Huissoon asked councillors to take advantage of their ability to review any zone change application by ensuring every possible angle is examined. That would include a multitude of new studies, many of them a requirement of a more demanding aggregate policy – known as official plan amendment, or OPA, 13 – adopted by the township in 2008 on the cusp of a string of gravel pit applications.

It’s fortunate, he said, that the holding provision exists, as that allows the township some say. Otherwise, the company could simply make a request for the change and have it rubber stamped by the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Huissoon stressed that the potential upcoming battle could be Woolwich’s last chance to preserve the picturesque valley, its farmland and tourism appeal. He asked that the township use the full extent of its regulations to ensure any application for change is well vetted.

“This is the last opportunity to evaluate the impact that a below water table pit will have on the Winterbourne Valley. Please ensure that all the studies listed in OPA 13 are undertaken and reviewed.”

While Preston Sand and Gravel has asked for a meeting with township planners to discuss extraction below the water table, no formal application has been made at this point.

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