New Niagara Regional Official Plan – Eroding Protection

John Bacher

Quite bizarrely, the new Niagara Regional Official Plan, approved on November 4, 2022, was a significant step backwards compared to the previous Niagara Regional Official Plan, which governed land use planning since its approval by the Ontario cabinet in 1983. The development of that official plan was a difficult 13 year process and a cornerstone for good planning in Niagara. While it initially provided policies to protect agricultural land, its approach became more comprehensive in 2009, with new provisions for comprehensive environmental protection policies. Of these policies one of the most important was the identification of provincially significant woodlands, termed Environmental Conservation Areas (ECA).

The Niagara Regional Official Plan (NROP) required environmental impact studies (EIS) to justify any site alteration of significant forests, ultimately rescuing many through peer-review of these EIS in hearings of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). One such rescued forest on Garner Road is a refuge for rare species. It  later became Niagara Falls’ Fernwood Park, protecting habitat for the threatened vine, the round leaved greenbriar, and the at-risk wildflower, the white wood aster. The old plan helped in saving old growth forest at Waverly Beach in Fort Erie which provides habitat for the rare red headed-woodpecker and the Fowler’s toad. Another victory the plan helped through OMB litigation was rescuing the headwaters of the Ten Mile Creek from urbanization. It is an area important for amphibian breeding habitat and part of a wildlife corridor between the Welland River and the Niagara Escarpment.

The recent four-year process to develop a new NROP was an elaborate farce. The past environmental policies were only enforceable through difficult litigation with the help of legal counsel and expert witnesses. The new NROP language is ambiguous and difficult to interpret, frustrating even these approaches. Most of the ECA areas became divided up into what were termed significant woodlands, and a new poorly defined term, Locally Significant Wetlands.  Another outrageous element was the approval of a future growth corridor which anticipates future industrial development along the Queen Elizabeth Highway in critical Carolinian old growth forest habitats. This corridor includes Waverly Woods, which contains an old growth predominately black gum forest, which are some of the oldest deciduous trees in Canada.

Photo by Marcie Jacklin of red-headed woodpecker which can be found in Waverly Wood. Page: Niagara Regional Official Plan.

Photo by Marcie Jacklin of red-headed woodpecker which can be found in Waverly Wood

The odious manner in which urban planning takes place in Niagara was oddly exposed through one much vaunted aspect of the process used to develop a new plan. An instrument of the public consultation process was the Natural Heritage Management System Online Mapping Tool. This revealed inadvertently, lies used at the OMB in the past to justify the never constructed Canadian Motor Speedway. Expert witnesses for the Speedway swore on oath that Millers Creek, whose headwaters was based on a spring on this site, would be relocated to produce a healthier stream than previously existed. The air photos and online mapping tool revealed that rather than being relocated, Millers Creek simply disappeared. The stream was bulldozed away and along with the trees lining it for an opening ceremony for a monstrous racing speedway which was never built.

The new Niagara Regional Plan achieved an apparent miracle, which shows in Niagara at least, you can apparently have your cake and eat it too. When the OMB approved the speedway, it did so based on special provisions in the Niagara and Fort Erie Official Plans, to prevent shopping centers being built until the speedway was completed. This provision has been carried on into the new NROP. At the same time for industrial-commercial purposes, which includes shopping centers, the former Canadian Motor Speedway lands were included into the expanded Niagara Regional urban boundaries. The process however, revealed a new significant environmental feature about the area, which was previously unknown that it is designated as providing significant deer wintering habitat.

The urban boundaries expansions included the headwaters of Ten Mile Creek, which several years ago had been kept in agricultural designations by the OMB. They included an area south of the Welland River in Niagara Falls, which surrounds a protected provincially significant wetland. These expansions were all opposed by the Niagara Falls Planning Department, which found that new greenfield development would exacerbate housing problems in Niagara Falls, rather than ease them. They urged a policy of intensification along existing transit routes in Niagara Falls.

The urban expansions approved by the Niagara Regional Council also created enough room to turn a farming-based village into a medium sized city. The expansion is entirely on Class One and Two Agricultural Lands, and would devastate the Twenty Mile Creek, a stream vulnerable to summer drought from climate change.  Sadly, only one Niagara Regional Councilor, Brian Heit, voted against the farcical Niagara Regional Official Plan.

On November 4, the sprawl encouraged by the draft NROP was made worse by three urban boundary expansion, imposed by the province, which were rejected by both the Niagara Region and the lower-tier municipalities of Niagara Falls and Fort Erie. The Fort Erie expansion is south of Garrison Road a.k.a Highway 3.

The Niagara Falls urban expansions are on lands that are quite environmentally and agriculturally significant. They are two areas called SBR 125 and SBR 126. In total their area comes to 152 hectares, or 375.6 acres. All these lands are Class One and Two agricultural lands. They, moreover, have excellent microclimates for grape and tender fruit. This was shown in OMB testimony of the greatest authority on the Niagara Fruit Belt geographer Ralph Kruger when the OMB rejected attempts by landowners to have these lands included in the Niagara Regional urban boundaries at those hearings in 1979. The lands are of considerable environmental significance as a narrow wildlife corridor between the Niagara Escarpment and the Welland River. An important tributary of Shriners Creek, the W-5-4, flows through them and has bullfrog habitat and provides flow for the creek within a protected conservation area.

The reckless secretive actions of the current provincial government have compounded the land use planning folly of Niagara’s politicians. There is a new danger on the  horizon as well, since the Niagara Falls City Council has requested a Ministerial Zoning (MZO) expansion on the Ten Mile Creek. One of the most immediate tasks is simply to publicize the duplicitous process of both the Niagara Regional Council and the provincial government.