Houses proposed for environmentally sensitive area
Dec 04, 2010
The first meeting of the new planning committee is confronted by a controversial proposal to build 65 houses on lands designated environmentally significant and zoned parkland. The plan was deferred in September after failing to get a seconder for the staff recommended approval motion.
Owned by two numbered companies, the property is on Garner Road where it turns into Rymal and is currently part of the Tiffany Creek Headwaters ESA (environmentally significant area) and a provincially significant wetland. But a developer study, endorsed by the conservation authority and a volunteer group that advises the planning department, has given the okay to redraw the boundaries and remove 20 acres (8 ha) from the ESA.
Nearly all the houses would be built on cul-de-sacs that extend finger-like into the remaining wetland or alongside nearly six acres of stormwater ponds being added to handle runoff from this development and a larger neighbouring one. City staff are recommending 15 metre buffers from the wetland – half the amount required in the city’s new official plan.
“Policy 2.5.10 [of the official plan] directs that Provincially Significant Wetlands would require a 30m vegetation protection zone from the boundary of the wetland, and that Significant Woodlands (ESA Boundary) would require a 15m vegetation protection zone from the drip-line or edge of the woodland,” notes the staff report. “In light of this new policy direction, the recommended buffer widths of 10m to the ESA (woodland) and 15m to the Provincially Significant Wetland are considered to be acceptable to ESAIEG and the Hamilton Conservation Authority.”
ESAIEG stands for Environmentally Significant Areas Impact Evaluation Group and is a volunteer committee that advises the city’s planning department. The report says they met three times on the proposal in the 2005-2008 period, when the group was mainly composed of consultants, but details of their deliberations are not provided.
The report says the “the ESA and buffer lands have experienced degradation through agricultural use over at least a 10-year period and through the effects of gradual urbanization to the east and northeast” of the site. As a result, ESAIEG decided the 20 acres are no longer considered wetlands and “there was no requirement for their protection or restoration under the Provincial Policy Statement.”
This reclassification drew sharp comments from Brian McHattie at the September planning committee meeting. He suggested “someone drained the wetland for quote unquote agricultural use” and argued this was “because they knew they wanted to develop it in the near future” for housing.
“And now we’re saying it’s not a wetland, but the soils are still there and the wetland soils are still there,” he argued. They’ve been there for millennia. Just because you drain the area for agriculture doesn’t mean it’s not a wetland anymore.”
The city’s natural heritage planner, Cathy Plosz, responded that the ESA designation had been set in 1994 and that 1999 air photos showed little change, but “when you look at the 2002 air photo, it ha[d] been cleared.” When staff visited the site after the development application in 2005, it was “in crop” and the wetland was no longer visible.
“And the problem is in the Provincial. Policy Statement, under the definition for wetland,” she explained. “If a wetland has been removed for agricultural purposes and displays none of the characteristics of a wetland which is hydrophilic soils and the vegetation, then it would no longer be considered a wetland.”
Terry Whitehead asked how the land could be cleared when it was supposed to be protected, and was told “that would be dealt with through a tree cutting bylaw, which wasn’t around at the time.” A staff recommendation to establish a new bylaw was rejected last year by the committee.
The single-family housing component of the development proposal doesn’t meet the minimum density required under new provincial policies, but the owners propose to build a 117 unit apartment building on Garner to overcome this. This is complicated by current rules in the Ancaster official plan that prohibit buildings over three stories and densities higher than 70 units per hectare – less than half the 175 units allowed in the new city-wide official plan that is awaiting final provincial approval.
To accommodate the apartments, some land reserved for a city pumping station would be rezoned, and the requirement for a children’s play area would be dropped “as this would be more consistent with other multiple dwellings in Ancaster which are generally developed for a more mature demographic, such as seniors and empty nesters, as opposed to younger families.”
Ed Fothergill, the planner representing the developer praised staff for a “very thorough job” and told the September meeting that “the plan in front of you is a reasonable compromise” that balances development interests and environmental protection and “is one of these cases where a development application can actually enhance existing natural features”
He contended the land had been agricultural for decades and that the ESA boundaries were “broad brushed” with the edge following a fence line rather than natural features.
“There was a time when the agriculture use on my client’s lands diminished and it was re-activated again,” he said. “It was more a function of tax incentives than anything. As you may know, there’s an incentive for people to farm properties where they can, because there are tax incentives.”
Taxes on farmland are about 80 percent lower than residential, even if they are located within the urban area. About two percent of land assessed as farmland in Hamilton is inside the urban boundary. There is a 25 percent discount for lands designated as ‘farmland awaiting development’.
Fothergill contended that the buffers recommended by staff were “twice as big as we think we need” and that “no wetlands have been taken out” in the development plans.
“All the wetlands that were identified are staying and there are buffers put in; the same with all the environmental features,” he declared. “The two wetlands that [staff] talked about, they were basically part of a corn field.”The planning committee holds its first meeting of the new council starting at 9:30 am on Tuesday morning in council chambers at city hall.