Special Report

City, Conservation Authority at Cross-Purposes on Greenbelt Protection

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)
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.

Council Approves Greenbelt Removals

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.

Hamilton Conservation Authority

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.

Devil's Punch Bowl (Image Credit: <a href=Wikipedia)" title="Devil's Punch Bowl (Image Credit: Wikipedia)">
Devil's Punch Bowl (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Area R2

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)
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."

Worth Preserving

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."

Conley Pushing for Removal

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."

'Trust the Planners'

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."

Wetland Restoration

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]."

City Wants More Flexibility

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.

Province Following Crombie Report

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.

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton based freelance writer. His articles have appeared in Raise the Hammer, Hamilton Spectator, the Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives), rabble.ca and the Globe and Mail Report on Business.

18 Comments

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted January 25, 2016 at 12:44:56

More sprawl? Just what Hamilton cannot afford. The cost of providing municipal services to these parasites will be well over twice that of servicing those in the urban area.

Not to mention enabling a bunch of car drivers to launch their lethal cancer poison attacks upon my children.

I want those people's hands out of my wallet and their poisons out of my lungs.

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By Narcissist (anonymous) | Posted January 25, 2016 at 17:28:48 in reply to Comment 116218

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By Maw maw maw (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 17:02:39 in reply to Comment 116220

Lol I assume you are referring to the sprawl developers who want us all to lay the carpet out for them at any cost either financial social or environmental? Lol

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By mcpherc (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 08:19:40 in reply to Comment 116220

Really? Don't waste our time with such a trite comment on such an important topic.

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By Concerned citizen (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 05:41:57

Great piece. Hamiltonians need to know what is going on behind the scenes regarding our Greenbelt. Once these green spaces and our watershed is destroyed it can't be brought back. Many Hamiltonians probably also not aware that the work of the Hamilton Conservation Authority is protecting areas of the city such as Stoney Creek from flooding.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted January 26, 2016 at 10:28:35

I've noticed Conley has made a habit of this - if he wants something, he waits for a long, drawn-out battle meeting, and then sticks it on the end when nobody has the stomache left to argue or examine it.

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By jorvay (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 12:23:22

Wait, am I missing something or are we literally asking the provincial government to change a program that is meant to curb sprawl by arguing that we want build more sprawl?

Hey NHL, I don't like your rule that requires players to wear visors. Why, you ask? Well because I want to jab people in their eyes with my stick of course.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 14:14:23 in reply to Comment 116225

Wait, am I missing something or are we literally asking the provincial government to change a program that is meant to curb sprawl by arguing that we want build more sprawl?

Of course we are. You know, election donors. That's the over-riding 'policy' that drives all 'policy' here.

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 13:07:25

This is why some developers fear the coming of your or any LRT Line. Some developers know in their heart of heart's that, they will never be able to be a developer of city centre or brownfield housing developments. They just aren't equipped or have the ability to do it. They like suburban or greenfield development because it is very easy and cheaper than other forms of development to build. So they either see their supply of greenfield land slowly disappearing as very bad or fear that, they may never be able to sell what's left before housing tastes really change in the Hamilton area. The threat of an increasing number of home buyers away from the outer burbs to all ready built great centrally located neighborhoods, being uplifted by the new development spawned by the LRT line is real.

The effected developers then tell Hamilton politicians and decision makers that, the Greenbelt is forcing the price of developable land up, inducing an ever increasing cycle of higher, unaffordable home prices and there is only one way to stop this. Use the ability the province gave municipalities to shave a little off land from the Greenbelt so land price stays low enough that people can buy the houses they build. Thus making the kingdoms (Wards) of certain suburban politicians bigger due to the increase in population. Politicians love being the representatives of growing areas not stable ones.

Greenbelts have often done these things by design so that, other types of housing that wouldn't normally get built, can get built and therefore better use the existing supply of developed and serviced land. Developers who normally love to build greenfield type developments do not like their land supply being rationalized like this because the new types of housing generally helped in this situation by Greenbelts and other planning mechanisms, are not overly car friendly, unlike most suburban development. Thus it is more difficult as well as costs a lot more for the developer to be a developer of brownfield development and that means less profit for them.

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 14:00:24 in reply to Comment 116226

They just aren't equipped or have the ability to do it.

If we stopped with the massive subsidies of sprawl, I'd be willing to bet that many would suddenly become 'equipped' and develop the 'ability to do it'. Funny how that works

Comment edited by JasonL on 2016-01-26 14:00:47

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 14:31:49 in reply to Comment 116227

Your point is valid however, only if the developers own land inside the city, many of the big developers in Ontario, only develop suburban properties because they only own suburban or soon to be suburban farm land. Only about 25-33% of the big developers own the land inside the built up areas of the cities. If you are not one of those developers, it sucks to be you when the government puts a forever hold on much the potential profit in an existing industry.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 23:50:33 in reply to Comment 116229

Who says you're entitled to potential profit from converting land from farmland or green space to housing. Notwithstanding the sprawl problem, there is value generated by building actual housing for people, but the land speculation part of land development is a different matter. I don't have much sympathy for people who are being deprived of what Winston Churchill referred to as the "unearned increment" ...

Comment edited by RobF on 2016-01-26 23:51:20

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By JasonL (registered) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 21:57:19 in reply to Comment 116229

Yea, I guess it would suck to have purchased land with the understanding that it will be added into the developed area in the future, and now have all of that be blocked permanently. But when do we change policy, and how do we change it without upsetting some land-owners along the way? If we wait 100 years and then try this again, the same issue will be there.

I don't have many solutions other than possible land swaps. Fact is, the process will suck for some, but we can't keep bankrupting our cities with awful policy just because a few landowners won't be able to cash in as they had hoped.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted January 27, 2016 at 11:08:47 in reply to Comment 116232

So speculators may suffer a loss? Funny how I am not drowning in a river of tears.

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By AOC (anonymous) | Posted January 26, 2016 at 16:27:51

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Niagara Escarpment as a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Receiving this designation is a lengthy process, as stated on the Canadian Commission for UNESCO website: in Canada, designation as a biosphere reserve takes about a decade. Every 10 years, following designation, reviews are completed to ensure program criteria are still being met. I would think that carving up the Greenbelt is contrary to protecting this great achievement.

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By jim (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2016 at 11:49:26

"justification" is the loophole which needs to be deleted. Letting Conley et al determine what is justified is the route a developer prefers to take when looking for a return on that campaign donation. You and I need to decide what is justified

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By Haveacow (registered) | Posted January 27, 2016 at 19:47:13

Your missing the main point here, these are very dangerous and powerful people, not millionaires but multi billionaires. They can by and sell people like us and often do, sometimes just for sport. These are people who will not take kindly to having their industry sidelined because of something paltry like the environmental future of the planet. You, me and the rest of the planet is a commodity to be sold and purchased, the guy with the most money when the Earth dies, wins! Your kids, my kids, heck, even their own kids, are on there own. Its up to the kids to survive. If they don't, well, they just weren't good enough! This may sound horrifying but, I have met some of these people, talked with them and had dinners with them. The majority really don't give a dam about helping the environment unless, they can make more money than they are currently making from destroying it.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted January 27, 2016 at 22:12:16 in reply to Comment 116252

Just like Trading Places! That was a good movie.

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