In St. Catharines a meeting was held for the provincial plan review for the Ontario Greenbelt on April 15th, and was attended by about 350 people. This large attendance was quite important, since the meeting attracted around 80 opponents of the Greenbelt. They were led by landowner leader, Austin Kirby, who asked those who shared her perspective to indicate by applause. Her signed briefing note left at one of the tables recommended that they should “gather round one table to gain more attention.”
Paradoxically, landowner opposition to the Greenbelt in Niagara is intense because of the significant public objectives it seeks to establish. The Greenbelt has an agricultural objective quite unlike any other aspect of the Greenbelt, which in most areas seeks to protect environmental features. What it protects from urban boundary expansions is the unique grape and tender fruit lands of most of eastern Canada. They are created by a rare micro-climate that makes the Greenbelt lands here better for fruit growing than the American “peach state” of Georgia.
Unlike other areas of the Greenbelt, there is no “white belt”, where agricultural land can be chewed up by urban boundary expansions, next to the biggest urban center, St. Catharines. Although the Greenbelt is does not extend into southern Niagara, even here a recent OMB decision rejecting an urban boundary expansion in Niagara Falls south of the Niagara Escarpment has prevented future sprawl.
Unfortunately landowner ire at the Greenbelt in Niagara is focused on the very few natural areas remaining in the predominately rural municipality of Niagara on the Lake. This has only two percent natural cover, largely confined to non-farm forested areas along the Niagara Escarpment. Although tiny, some of the forest fragments are quite ecologically significant, most notably the Zuk Forest, which contains rare Paw Paw Trees.
At the tables there were a number of strongly committed environmentalists. One of the most eloquent was David Griffiths. He is an active member of the Mel Swart Park Committee. It has spearheaded the call for the expansion of the Greenbelt in the Short Hills to Seaway Corridor. This would protect the Niagara Region’s largest source of drinking water and foster a significant wildlife corridor.
Griffiths appreciated the importance of having a prosperous tree fruit industry, which has perilously shrunken to around 250 growers. In order to help fruit growers economically, he urged the revival of the 1994, Niagara Tender Fruit Land Program. This program would have paid fruit growers a “restrictive covenant” on their lands. It was cancelled as part of the disastrous “Common Sense Revolution”, of the Conservative government of Mike Harris.
Griffiths pointed out that a similar program helps to provide stability for the famous scenic landscape of Lancaster County, associated with horse powered Amish farmers. The tourist revenues that this generates more than pays for the costs of the program, raised through a small amount annual cigarette taxes.
It is to be hoped that when the Greenbelt plan is finalized, there will be new programs to help the fruit growers that make Niagara unique. The beauty of vistas of orchards and vineyards that can be seen from the Niagara Escarpment need to be on a secure footing that will long endure.
Written by: John Bacher
Photo by John Bacher: Black Creek - Wild trout and salmon river in Halton Region threatened by urbanization in White Belt.