There’s a long way to go before Woolwich renders a decision on an application for a gravel pit near Maryhill. And it will be even longer before the almost-inevitable tribunal and legal action plays out.
But the township’s decision is already clear if democratic and environmental principles are factors: the project isn’t a good fit.
Residents were out in force last week as the process got underway in earnest with a public meeting. Capital Paving is seeking an official plan amendment and zoning changes to designate some 230 acres south of the village as suitable for an aggregate-extraction operation. The only people speaking out in favour of the idea are the applicants and their representatives, with every other delegate to last week’s meeting opposed to the proposal.
It’s easy to see why that’s the case given the very real concerns about traffic, noise, dust and safety. In that regard, this project is the same as other recent bids that have sought to build gravel pits in close proximity to residential areas, as we’ve seen in Conestogo, West Montrose and the ongoing saga in Winterbourne.
Some of the decisions of late have gone in residents’ favour, a trend that was supposed to be strengthened by the replacement of the developer-friendly Ontario Municipal Board with the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), but the Ford government’s “open for business” strategy has sought to undermine controls on development. (The not-public-friendly Ministry of Natural Resources’ involvement tends to further complicate aggregate issues.)
In the case of gravel pits and other unpopular developments, the argument is made that taking away local control 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.
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.
Opponents say too much power rests with provincial agencies. 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.
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 a 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.
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. 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.
We’ll have to moves that protect citizens, before anyone believes that the parties, the township included, are working in the public interest.