With little prospect of extracting gravel from the site, the owners of Winterbourne-area property should look to turn it back into farmland, suggest residents of Winterbourne and Conestogo who packed Woolwich council chambers this week.
Opposed to a gravel pit that was eventually approved for the 89-acre site at 125 Peel St., the neighbours have stepped up their efforts since Preston Sand and Gravel (PSG) began pushing to remove a holding provision that prevents below-the-water-table extraction on the site.
A legal battle having already cleared the way for a conventional pit at the Jigs Hollow site, PSG was stymied when work got underway in 2014 and the water table was too high to permit it to continue – all extraction has to be no deeper than 1.5 metres above the water table, and levels were almost at the surface. Since then, the company has been jockeying for a request for the township to reverse its prohibition against digging below the water line.
In addition to allowing the company to dig into the water table, the request calls for the total amount of aggregate to be mined to reach 2.1 million metric tonnes, up from 800,000 in the current agreement. Extraction would remain at 150,000 tonnes per year.
The operational timeline would extend to 14-plus years rather than the six or seven years in the existing forecast. And instead of rehabilitating the site back to farmland, a large pond would remain in the middle of the valley, filled in with groundwater to depths of 6.5 to 14 metres.
The elimination of any pretence of rehabilitation is at the heart of residents’ arguments against PSG’s request.
Conestogo’s Della Stroobosscher told councillors meeting Tuesday night that extracting below the water table would contravene an existing Ontario Municipal Board mediation agreement that makes repeated calls for rehabilitation back to farmland.
“This major site plan amendment application proposes that the final land use of the extraction area will not be agricultural, but ‘a naturalized water body,’” she said.
“This final land use is in conflict with the board’s order of rehabilitation, which all parties agreed to in mediation.”
A better vision for the property involves halting plans for a gravel pit altogether, said Stroobosscher, whose presentation drew a round of applause from the packed gallery.
“The land has been sitting inactive for five years. Not a single piece of gravel has been extracted from it. The berms are only partially built, and no equipment is sitting on it.
“It’s not too late to rehabilitate it back to farmland, as ordered by the OMB.”
Dan Kennaley, Woolwich’s director of engineering and planning, noted there is something of a contradiction in the OMB decision – it calls for rehabilitation, but also provides a process for lifting the holding provision on the property.
That said, ‘there’s got to be really solid reasons to do so,” he said of allowing the operation to go below the water line.
“It creates a very tight sieve through which the application for a below-the-water-table operation is judged,” he said of provisions in Woolwich’s aggregate policy.
Representing PSG, Justin Bischoff said the company should be permitted to go ahead with its plans, pointing to a previous below-the-water-table operation in Woolwich, namely in Bloomingdale.
He said the company has approvals from the MOE, MNR and region to move forward.
“There are extremely stringent guidelines for below-water-table extraction,” he said of safeguards that would be in place.
Addressing the Bloomingale example, Coun. Larry Shantz noted there is now a large pond, but the remaining land around the Bloomingdale pit was never rehabilitated.
Bischoff said the pit no longer belongs to PSG, arguing there’s a need for the product.
“Gravel is an essential part of our economy.”
But Shantz was unconvinced.
“What good is that going to be to the township?” he asked of the prospect of a fenced-off pond on what is now prime farmland near Winterbourne.
Kennaley noted hydrogeologists hired by PSG remain at odds with the assessment of experts hired by the township to review studies submitted by the company. A solution does not appear to be imminent.
Scheduled to retire at the end of June, Kennaley said a comprehensive report and recommendation will be left to new planning staff to be hired following his departure, which comes on the heels of the retirement of manager of planning John Scarfone.
He said he’d provide council with an update prior to departing.
“It’ll likely be a status report rather than a recommendation report,” he said, adding he doesn’t want to handcuff the new planning staff.
Delegation Della Stroobosscher address to Woolwich Council: