In a section of the Niagara Region’s draft Official Plan, there lies a highly debated area outlining that Niagara Region is about to vote on an enormous environmental framework that will change the way Niagara functions for the times to come.
You’ve got the environmentally beneficial option, 3C, and the half-flexed option of 3B.
One shows more muscle than the other when it comes to seriously protecting, and even enhancing Niagara’s Natural Heritage System (NHS). The NHS refers to the collection of forests, wetlands, creeks, and other natural features which serve to house biodiversity and protect our communities.
After this year’s May 20 meeting at the Region, it was decided to keep the NHS options 3B and 3C afloat for an additional five to six weeks. It appears those additional few weeks are already ticking away, as councillors and mayors continue to engage stakeholders from all directions. This will be a significant decision once it concludes. The very people who vote on this likely won’t see the success or failure of the vote’s results in their lifetime.
Both of these options boil down to contrasting how future developments in the Niagara Region are going to proceed. They focus on subject matters such as habitat linkages, protective ecosystem buffers, and potential enhancement areas. I’d say these are pretty important conversations to be had. How aggressively and quickly are we willing to degrade what remains of our NHS here in NOTL, let alone across Niagara Region? Also, why should we care about developments in Niagara Falls, Port Colborne, or Welland, or here in Niagara-on-the-Lake?
Firstly, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of NHS options 3B and 3C.
For option 3B, the majority of decision-making takes place at the municipal level without consultation from regional staff, while 3C leans more on the region for input and permissions.
Although 3B identifies and supports natural features outside of settlement areas, as does option 3C, 3B doesn’t muster up the idea that you could support natural features both outside and inside development areas. It only sticks to the outside, while 3C has this responsibly covered.
In other words, you would likely see a more severe divide of urban and natural areas with option 3B. If the area is deemed okay for development on the map, you can bet that very little natural heritage will be spared. With option 3C, there is an opportunity to work with nature in these developments, should they come to town.
Both 3B and 3C focus on the large and medium-sized environmental linkages, also known as habitat corridors. However, 3C goes the extra mile in supporting small linkages as well, which, when added up, provide a subtle but powerful network for our local wildlife species to move around. Biodiversity stays healthy when animals can move freely to ensure their gene pool remains healthy. In addition, 3C could also provide more “inner city” recreational opportunities for people.
Then, there are the buffers, the areas of land which protect an ecosystem like the walls of a building protect what’s inside it. You are likely reading this article indoors, so take a moment to look around the room you’re in. The walls are your buffer from the elements — a safety and comfort blanket which ensures you remain protected, happy and healthy. This is precisely what significant environmental areas require to function, a sort of gradient that blends them gently into the surrounding developed landscape so residential or industrial influence can’t deteriorate its quality.
I was personally and professionally disheartened to watch new suburbs pop up directly on the edge of protected wetlands in Niagara Falls at the Thundering Waters Forest over the years. Without buffers between the housing and the wetlands, a slew of oil, residential runoff, and dog poop bags make it into the wetlands with ease.
Option 3C states there needs to be mandatory buffer minimums (for example, a 30-metre distance as currently prescribed by the province), versus merely suggesting a minimum option inside developed areas. In my experience, something that is suggested becomes a topic with a lot of wiggle room for decision-making, which is what option 3B would open the floor for.
So, why does this vote matter on the day it comes? Why should we rally to vote for NHS option 3C?
Like ecosystems, municipalities are all connected. Ecosystems don’t know boundaries, unlike the fabricated lines that humans draw all over the maps. The inescapable, and hopefully convenient truth is that what we do in one municipality can have direct or indirect impacts on the neighbouring township. For example, what Niagara Falls does on top of the escarpment has implications for just about all of NOTL’s major watersheds. What Pelham develops along Hwy 20 will affect the health of Short Hills Provincial Park and St. Catharines. How Port Colborne and Welland treat their creeks is how we treat the Niagara River.
I honestly don’t care whether the region or a local municipality calls the shots. If someone leaves the restaurant table messy, it doesn’t matter whether the waiter or the manager gives it a cleanup. Aren’t we all part of the same team under the same roof?
What matters most is this: we put a natural heritage system first, we listen to the science, and we think about long-term gain.
This will ensure the next few generations of people and animals alike don’t wake up to a bad dream.