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Setting the right priorities in the next gravel debate

New Woolwich councillors who thought they’d dodged the gravel pit bullet found the issue front and center again this week.

Ironically, the pit in question is one that had already seen considerable debate, an Ontario Municipal Board hearing and, ultimately, approval from a previous council.

Two other, larger and more contentious pit applications had already fallen by the wayside: the Hunder pit near Conestogo rejected by the OMB, and the Capital Paving bid for an operation near West Montrose, dropped by the applicant.

In that light, it looked like smooth sailing as far as gravel was concerned. Instead, it seems the Jigs Hollow operator is ramping up a bid for below-the-water-table extraction, raising the ire of nearby residents. Those same neighbours can be forgiven for holding out some hope that Preston Sand and Gravel, having discovered groundwater levels essentially rendered the pit unviable, would cut their losses and abandon plans at the site. That no longer seems plausible.

That would have worked just fine for Woolwich officials, too. The pit was never a good idea, and having the operator walk away would have been ideal.

Should a formal application for rezoning – lifting a holding provision prohibition extraction below the water table – come forward, council will have a chance to kibosh the plan, perhaps negating the original decision in the process.

To the residents of Winterbourne, this is a chance to perhaps undo a perceived wrong. As a group, they’ve been ever-diligent in presenting their case, doing their research and presenting compelling reasons why there should be no gravel mining in the Winterbourne valley.

Along with the destruction of prime farmland – even more so should the digging go below the water table – the pit threatens a scenic area rife with cultural history. More pragmatically, it stands to degrade the quality of life of those living nearby, bringing noise, dust and truck traffic that raises safety concerns.

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 Winterbourne (and in the proposals for Conestogo and West Montrose).

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 (again), which has a track record of ignoring local decisions in favour of developers, the Hunder pit notwithstanding.

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.

That’s not a good enough reason to impose a more destructive pit on the people of Winterbourne.

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