Residents promoting a natural heritage park on Lakeshore Road are still hopeful they will see their vision fulfilled.
The Harmony Residents Group became organized in 2008 to present an alternative to Project Niagara, a proposal by two major orchestras to use the Parks Canada property for a music festival. The plan was for 50 concerts a season, an amphitheatre and other amenities that were projected to attract 250,000 visitors a year.
Many locals were opposed to the concept, worried about noise levels and the increase in traffic the festival would create. The Harmony group, also concerned about damage to the ecosystem, proposed an alternate — a park that would protect the forests, wetland and wildlife.
Ten years later, the sewage treatment plant on the property is finally about to be decommissioned, almost three years later than scheduled, and Harmony members are hoping once that has occurred and the Region has returned the site to its original condition, Parks Canada, which owns the property, will start thinking about opening it as a natural park, accessible to the public.
The Region, with Parks Canada, has been looking at options for the rehabilitation of the property, and announced last week, during an update on the new sewage treatment plant, that the lagoons will be filled in and the original course of Two Mile Creek, altered to accommodate the treatment pant, will be restored. That will allow for a Riverine Wetland — a marsh with natural flooding — councillors at Monday’s meeting were told.
There had been other options on the table, including a constructed wetland, which can treat municipal or industrial waste water and remove pollutants from water. It is sometimes used in reclamation projects, and was the solution Coun. Gary Burroughs hoped Parks Canada would choose.
Now a town councillor after eight years as NOTL’s regional representative, Burroughs is a member of the Harmony group. He wanted one of the two sewage lagoons closed, the other left as a constructed wetland to be part of the park. Burroughs was a supporter of a research project more than 20 years ago, involving town and regional representatives and members of the Friends of Fort George, on the Lakeshore Road property.
The research, led by the late Dr. Ed Lemon, proved a constructed wetland could effectively treat sewage in a cold climate — then considered a scientific breakthrough. Burroughs believes a permanent constructed wetland could become a valuable education resource, for locals and visitors to town.
He said he was “shocked” by the announcement that the lagoons would both be filled in — for the last eight years the region has been talking about options and public consultations, and now it seems the decision has been made, with a $12 million price tag, he said.
Regional interim CAO Ron Tripp told NOTL councillors at Monday’s meeting the future of the lagoons had been finalized last fall, as the environmental assessment was wrapping up, with a decision made to pump the water from the ponds and fill them with soil..
“A lot of us believed a constructed wetland was the answer. It was a shock to hear the decision was made,” said Burroughs. “My understanding is they have to come back to the public before they proceed.”
Finn Madsen, president of the Harmony group, says its goal is to see the federal property, from the former rifle range controlled by the Department of National Defence, east to Niagara Shores Park, become one long green space, with a public trail from one end to the other along the waterfront.
Although it’s Madsen’s opinion the ponds should be left as they are, rather than large sums of tax payers’ money being spent to fill them in, the decision won’t affect the group’s proposal for the long term, he said.
“My concern is the taxes we’re paying, and keeping costs down,” he said. “We could save millions of dollars by allowing the ponds to self-remediate over a period of time. It would be just as beneficial to wildlife.”
He believes there will still be time for public consultations, to talk about further options, he said.
The Harmony group has never veered from its original mandate to see a natural park along the entire property, Madsen said.
“I’d like to see that done in the least expensive way possible and in partnership with the NPCA (Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority), and other agencies that can help maintain it. That’s been our vision for the last 10 years.”
After years of researching the decommissioning of ponds, as recently as December the group wrote to the region, outlining their concerns. Leaving the ponds as open water would not only be a less expensive option but would have the least impact on wildlife in the area, they said.
Gary Zalepa, NOTL’s regional councillor, was at the Town meeting last week for the sewage update, and heard the discussion about the lagoons.
He also attended a Harmony group meeting to fill members in on the regional plans, and assured them there would be further consultation.
While the decision has been made to fill in the lagoons to fulfill the region’s remediation obligation, there will be further details to work out for the design of the site, he said.
The engineering focus, leading up to the decommissioning of the lagoons, is to get them pumped out and filled in, along with correcting the flow of Two Mile Creek, but there will be further public consultation about what the area will look like. The NPCA is expected to be involved in the discussion, he added, and at that point any decisions about a park and public access will be in the hands of Parks Canada, the steward of the property.
During past meetings, the federal agency appeared to be onside with the idea of a natural park, but once the remediation work is done by the region, “it will be up to Parks Canada to decide on the next steps.”
Asked about public consultations and next steps for the 106-hectare site, Parks Canada staff referred to a management plan for the area, which acknowledges there is “significant interest from the local community” in the property. It says there will be continued dialogue with a goal of facilitating public access by 2021 to 2022.
UPDATE: Parks Canada has sent this to The Local: “The Environmental Assessment process and the related consultation is led by the Region. Parks Canada will continue to collaborate with the Region as they move from the Environmental Assessment process to the design of options for remediation. As the region develops these options, there are numerous different types of wetlands that could be considered. In the Region’s Environmental Assessment, they only identify that the preferred planning solution will be a wetland, however the specifics of the type of wetland will be reviewed and identified during detailed design, including open water, swamp, marsh, bog, fen, etc. Parks Canada will only agree to an option once it is developed and consulted upon.”