City Council wants to remove east mountain land from the Greenbelt, undermining the efforts of the Hamilton Conservation Authority to protect and enhance the natural environment.
By Paul Weinberg
Published January 25, 2016
It was so spooky that foggy pre-Christmas morning, I almost expected the ghosts of blue uniformed American soldiers from the war of 1812 to emerge with their muskets drawn on this isolated stretch up on Hamilton's east mountain.
Greenbelt sign (RTH file photo)
Local resident Michael Curley was my guide and driver that day as his black pickup truck edged past an unassuming brick farm house and the surrounding cherry trees on property near Green Mountain Road.
Until recently, the land had been held by the descendents of 19-year old Billy Green, who in 1813 had warned British forces of the massing of US soldiers in what is now Stoney Creek. (All of the historical details about Billy Green are available on the Battlefield Museum website.)
Today all of this lore is forgotten. What I just visited is land being targeted for removal by the city from the province's freeze on development in Greenbelt areas.
The original purpose of the Greenbelt was to control the spread of suburban sprawl on irreplaceable agricultural land, watersheds, and ecological areas. So far it is not clear if Queen's Park, as the ultimate arbiter in its ten year review of the Greenbelt, will accept any of the recommendations of the affected municipalities, including Hamilton.
What we do know now is that provincial advisor and former Toronto mayor David Crombie is calling for the expansion of the Greenbelt, not its shrinkage.
My little tour came about after I ran into Michael Curley expressing his concerns at the December 3 Planning Committee meeting over Hamilton City staff suggestions that these properties be removed. Curley echoed earlier statements by Don McLean of Citizens at City Hall (CATCH), Environment Hamilton's executive director Lynda Lukasik, and some local Hamilton farmers over the loss of these precious areas.
In the end, the majority of elected politicians on the committee and City Council sided with the clamorous parade of landowners, real estate firms and speculators who have assembled former farming properties in the Greenbelt and are now lobbying for the unbuckling of the restrictions for development.
"[The politicians] seem to think it is a mad rush like there is a fire sale going on [where] we need to get the Greenbelt properties removed so that we can develop it," says Curley.
Curley is a bit of an anomaly, which is why I contacted him. Slim and middle-aged, he says he makes his money on real estate projects. So he has an intimate knowledge of how land speculators operate.
Yet Curley is also a long-standing resident who lives in the countryside on Ridge Road. He has a personal and emotional stake in the preservation of the surrounding natural environment including what had been farmed in the past.
His house is located about 100 metres from where a new subdivision may pop up if the landowners get their way. So when Curley angrily talks about the influence of "special interests" at Hamilton city hall, it is hard not to pay attention.
Back to that foggy morning, we continued our journey in rural east Mountain and stopped not far away on First Road East. To the east stands the 72.19 hectares (178.39 acres) of floodplain lands (including both forests and wetlands) that the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA) purchased last fall as part of its east escarpment wetland restoration in the vicinity of Battlefield Creek and Stoney Creek.
This property is close to the Devil's Punch Bowl, which the non-profit organization already owns, and the Dofasco Trail.
Greenbelt restrictions on development have placed a damper on land values, so the HCA was able to purchase the new property at an affordable amount from local farmers.
It is understandable that HCA wants to avoid any public mention of recent or future acquisition moves for restoration purposes that are also in the works, says Curley. This is because, he says, even a hint of the HCA's buying intentions can still lift up the market prices of the same property.
The HCA is mandated in provincial legislation like its sister municipal conservation authorities to manage the local watershed, which includes using wetlands to absorb excess water runoff which has been the source of flooding below the escarpment in lower Stoney Creek.
By acquiring this Greenbelt areas and managing the watershed, HCA hopes to slow the flow of water down the escarpment, says Scott Peck, Director of Watershed and Engineering at the HCA.
"We can start to keep the water on the lands, so it is not rushing into the watercourses and then causing flooding problems downstream and erosion problems downstream," he explains.
So it became a concern for Curley and others like CATCH and Environment Hamilton that 140 hectares of roughly similar mixture of a woodlot and vacant farmland (including the former Green property) across from the new HCA property was being targeted by the City for possible removal from the Greenbelt.
Even though the province has not given its formal approval, the mere suggestion by Hamilton City Council that it proposes to include this area - called Area R2 in planning jargon - will also lead to dramatic market price increases for what still resides inside the Greenbelt, says Curley.
Area R2 (Image Credit: City of Hamilton)
Both Mayor Fred Eisenberger and Ward 9 Councillor Doug Conley, who has Area R2 in his ward, indicated to me in separate interviews that they do not believe an upsurge in land prices will occur with any of the recommended removals from the Greenbelt by the City, before the province has expressed its final word on the subject.
But Michael Curley counters that these politicians lack a sufficient understanding of how real estate works in a hot housing market like the east Mountain.
Curley argues that Area R2 has experienced its biggest upsurge in price following the decision of Hamilton city politicians "because the speculators have already adjusted the market value of the land to the ultimate value of the land."
He continues, "You bought it for eight thousand [an acre]; all of a sudden, you can sell it to a developer for $38,000."
Why is Area R2 worth preserving? Curley, who likes to go horseback riding for relaxation in the surrounding countryside, put it this way in an Oct. 11, 2015 letter to the city's planners:
The Area 2 that you seek [for removal] currently maintains many ponds and forest that support the eco-system and significant bird migration and wildlife. Where else can the birds stage and or rest after the flight over the lake? There are many deer, coyote, fox, hawks, owls and...blue jays, cardinals and Canada geese. There are presently two bee farmers that I know of and many mature cherry trees that yield yearly.
In the interests of having connected areas of restored wetlands and forests in the east Mountain, he believes it would make sense for the HCA to acquire Area R2. He worries about what he sees as apathy in Hamilton among the politicians and citizens towards the value of the escarpment and the natural heritage in their midst.
"The people from downtown Hamilton seem to go to Toronto. Why don't they go to the Stoney Creek area and go up to the escarpment for a day? It is a whole lot closer and probably more beautiful when you get up and see the view of the lake. On a clear day, it is spectacular up here, but they want to build houses."
Curley is concerned by the efforts that Councillor Doug Conley has made to include Area R2 in the city planners' list of recommended Greenbelt removals.
Area R2 was originally less of a priority for removal for the City planners, until Conley aggressively added it to the removal list, just minutes before the end of the lengthy committee meeting, which had gone past lunch-time.
Much of the attention in the press surrounding the Greenbelt in Hamilton has focused on the effort to take out what remains of tender fruit land in lower Stoney Creek, particularly the old E.D. Smith property. In that discussion, which also dominated at the December 3 planning committee meeting, the mayor joined the dissenting side to oppose a motion to remove the tender fruit land.
Councillor Conley, who is one of several councillors who sit on the HCA, denies that special interests or private owners of land in Area R2 lobbied him to speed up its exit from the Greenbelt. Conley says he cannot identify the landowners in Area R2 and he has no idea who bought the Green farm property.
Conley says he considered the southern portion of Area R2 below Green Mountain Road West and above Mud Street as a potential site for residential development because it had once contained a racetrack. "That was the only reason. Nobody was pushing me. I was just thinking from my history [that] nothing has been developed there. No farm ever happened and so why not try to use [it] for something productive."
When I asked him about Michael Curley's concerns about preserving the natural and farming environments of Area R2, Conley indicated that if another vote at city council occurred he would vote this time to return at least that portion above Green Mountain Road West to the Greenbelt.
But the Ward 9 representative says he would have to consult the city planners before taking further action politically.
"I would definitely talk to planning first. I don't want to go head to head with them, but I don't think they would have deep problems with it," he says.
Earlier, when I spoke to Jason Thorne, the City's General Manager of Planning and Economic Development, about the removal process, he said that there was room for "refinement" and changes "at the micro-scale at some of the boundary issues [and] some of the natural heritage systems."
Conley explains he relies on planners a great deal since his ward in the east Mountain continues to be a "hot" market for suburban housing. He bristles at the term "low-density" development and insists the newly constructed homes are not as big and wide as they used to be.
"You know my area, I have got thousands of houses being built up there, and I have to trust [the planners]. That [is] they know what they are doing. I do ask questions but it is at a different level."
As a member of HCA, Conley was personally involved in the decision to purchase the 72 hectares that borders Area R2 towards the east in neighbouring ward 11.
Here, the HCA spent $4-million (half of which comes from the city and the other from Heritage Green Community Trust) on an ambitious five-year project to restore wetlands and forests, as well as maintain what remains of historical farm buildings and marginal agricultural land where some crops will be grown.
The 72 hectares contains features such as small caves and sinkholes that make the property ultimately unattractive for residential developers, say Conley.
Environment Hamilton and CATCH counter that Hamilton's recommended Greenbelt removals clash with the HCA's ambitious plans for the east Mountain.
Conley agrees there has to be better communication with the HCA. "You know what I'd like to do is get some comments from the Conservation Authority [and] see what they think about that land [in Area R2]."
Hamilton's recommendations include a controversial proposal to amend the province's ten-year freeze on development by giving municipalities more opportunity to make further recommendations to the Greenbelt including removals.
The city needs more flexibility and time in order to do a municipal comprehensive review to determine its future growth and housing needs, explains Thorne.
Hamilton's head of planning reports that other municipalities are on a similar wavelength in terms of opening up the Greenbelt process.
"I haven't reviewed the other formal submissions that were adopted by other councils. But I know informally from some of my colleagues there is interest in doing that," says Thorne.
This goes far beyond the province's intentions and represents an aggressive move by Hamilton, says Lynda Lukasik, who has a PhD in planning. "This is the first we were aware that they were going to ask this specific request. But I think generally a lot of municipalities have a sort of contempt for the province coming in and imposing a regional framework," she says.
Environment Hamilton supports Greenbelt expansion, not removal. It takes the position that Hamilton can handle the demand for more housing for a growing population within its present already built up area through intensified development.
"If the province goes ahead with the Crombie recommendation [for an expanded Greenbelt], the city will have a harder time with its removal recommendations, says Lukasik.
David Crombie's report on the Greenbelt is "the baseline for local planning decisions," says Mark Cripps, a spokesperson for Ted McMeekin, Ontario's Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister.
"[The minister] is also clear in the statement I sent to you that we are not considering any planning proposals that aim to remove land from the Greenbelt. We are actually hoping municipalities propose lands to add to the greenbelt."
Paul Weinberg wishes to thank the Ontario Arts Council Writers Reserve program for assistance in the research for this article.
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