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Pitting what’s democratic against what gets approved

No matter how impassioned or rational their pleas, nothing Maryhill residents said at a public meeting this week will have any bearing on the decision about a sprawling gravel pit near the village.

Still, the township had to go through the motions Tuesday night, letting the public have its say.

In the end, the decision is likely to be made outside of Woolwich in a process with little if any public accountability.

Left to make the decision, Woolwich councillors would reject Capital Paving’s bid to mine gravel from a 230-acre site centered on 1195 Foerster Rd., south of Maryhill. As local representatives, they would be doing the will of most residents by voting ‘no.’ Moreover, gravel operations provide little in the way of economic benefit to the township, while at the same time damaging roads as heavy trucks travel back and forth to the mining location, all the while increasing traffic and the resultant safety risks.

The reality is different, however. If the township rejects the application, the company will appeal the decision to an unelected and unaccountable provincial tribunal. There’s also the very real risk the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry would simply override any democratic process anyway.

If council approves Capital Paving’s application, there’s a good chance residents may launch an appeal of their own, again placing the decision in the hands of the tribunal. In that instance, however, there’s a good chance the residents would lose.

The latter scenario is further complicated by the fact Woolwich planning staff has recommended approval of the application, meaning the township would have to hire outside planners to argue against its own staff’s position. That adds costs to what is already an expensive legal process, a pragmatic consideration that does indeed factor into council’s deliberations about whether or not to approve gravel pit applications.

As it stands, the company has simply to check the boxes of a process set out by a developer-friendly bureaucracy, and the citizens have no say.

The issue would be much less complicated if the province simply turned over decision-making power for planning applications to the municipalities, which would then be able to chart their own course without interference from third parties.

As many critics of the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal and its predecessor, the Ontario Municipal Board, have noted, municipalities make decisions on many issues without the oversight of a provincial tribunal, rendering the century-old practice irrelevant, as well as undemocratic.

Planning matters are different, apparently.

In that vein, applications for the likes of gravel pits and other developments , the rejection of which are often overturned by the tribunal, raise the issue of local land decisions. In the townships, this often means questions about prime farmland. Here, the provincial process that favours developers is at odds with the protection of land by preventing sprawl and the hypocritical push for growth at all costs.

Prime farmland is a rare commodity, less than five per cent of land in the province. And a shrinking one, a situation not helped by the likes of gravel pits, which are never returned to their previous state despite mandatory rehabilitation programs, which are themselves not always enforced.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture argues gravel pits should be prohibited on prime farmland, noting that agricultural land was being lost in Ontario at a rate of 175 acres per day. The organization found generally negative impacts of  gravel mining and aggregate trucking on agricultural land uses and on individual farm operations.

Such considerations add to the reasons for Woolwich to reject the application, and for provincial legislation to encourage the same … or get out of the way by scrapping the developer-centric appeal process.

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