North Gower landowners have had it up to here with costly drainage plan

Hundreds of landowners in North Gower are asking Ottawa city council to shut down a proposed $1.5-million upgrade to drainage works in their area, claiming that while they're footing the bill, they'll see little to no benefit.

Farmers will benefit most from $1.5M drain upgrade, but neighbours forced to help foot the bill

Gary Earl expects to be billed about $3,500 for new drainage work in North Gower. He doesn't want wetland property drained and says he and his neighbours are effectively being asked to subsidize farmers. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Hundreds of landowners in North Gower are asking Ottawa city council to shut down a proposed $1.5-million upgrade to drainage works in their area, claiming that while they're helping to foot the bill, they'll see little to no benefit.  

The affected landowners live in the area served by the Cranberry Creek Municipal Drain, which carries water to the Rideau River.

Farmers say the water isn't flowing off their land as it should, in part because of high water levels in the river in the summer.

The proposed solution includes a dyke to stop water flowing back into the drainage system from the river, along with a pump to take water back over the dyke toward the river in the event of heavy rain that swamps the surrounding properties.

However, anger swelled when landowners discovered this spring that unlike most municipal infrastructure, which is covered by the pool of property taxes collected from people across the city, upgrades to municipal drains are the sole responsibility of the landowners in the drainage area — in this case, the owners of some 300 properties.

Some landowners in North Gower are asking city council to stop a project that would install a 'pump and dyke' system at the mouth of Cranberry Creek. All landowners in the drainage area are required to foot the bill, but many say their costs are unfair because they won't benefit. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Sticker shock

Gary Earl got an assessment tallying his bill, connected to about 40 hectares of bush he uses for hunting, at nearly $8,000. 

Earl said he isn't even interested in draining off water, which he said is great for attracting migratory birds.

"I purchased [the property] in the year 2000, and I was told it was wetlands, and I said 'Great!,'" Earl said. "I'm happy leaving it just the way it is."

Landowner Gary Earl says he feels like he's subsidizing farmers, because the drainage upgrade won't help him at all. 0:36

Now he's wondering if the new drainage system, designed to benefit farmers, will cost his property its provincial wetland status.

"They're entitled to earn a living, but I don't feel I should have to pay for that," Earl said.

"They're the ones that are going to get an income in the future from it. I won't get anything, so to me, it's a subsidy to the farmer."

Farmers also qualify for grants to offset the cost of the new drainage works which are not available to other residents, Earl noted.

The Cranberry Creek Municipal Drain, highlighted in red, serves approximately 300 properties. Property owners within the black boundary must pay for necessary upgrades to the drain through their property taxes. (Engineer's report prepared for the City of Ottawa)

Assessments appealed

Earl was one of more than 100 residents who appealed their assessments in the spring. That led to a redistribution of the costs, and Earl learned Monday his own bill had been cut down to about $3,500.

Phyllis Begg saw hers drop nearly 70 per cent, to under $3,000, but still has misgivings about the process.

"Even the reduced assessment is too much," Begg said.

"This thing should never have gotten off the ground."

Begg questions the engineer's assessment of her own property's burden on the drainage system, as well as the city's approach to informing residents about a complex process, beginning with the delivery of USB sticks in the mail.  

"I do happen to be computer literate and I do have a computer, [but] my neighbour across the road doesn't, and a lot of people in the country don't," Begg said.

Farmer Mel Foster says flooding caused serious crop losses for him and for other farmers last year. He believes it's the responsibility of the whole community to cover the cost of improved drainage. (Susan Burgess/CBC)

Farmers urge city to proceed

Meantime, the main concern among farmers in the area is to see the new drainage works installed quickly and the ditches cleaned.

Doug McKay, who uses about 20 hectares of his property to grow hay, estimated he lost half his crop last year due to flooding exacerbated by poor drainage, which he blames on the city's failure to maintain the existing system over many years.

"More than half of my hay field went under water and I had large carp swimming in the field," McKay said in an email.

McKay's net cost for the drainage works — after a $3,371 grant has been applied — will be about $6,800.

At Foster Family Farm, co-owner Mel Foster estimates he lost about eight hectares of yellow and green beans due to flooding.

This year, his strawberry field is spotted with bare patches he blames on excessive rain last year that was poorly drained.

Some residents may not feel they're personally benefiting from an improved drain, Foster said, but if water from their land feeds into the drainage system, they need to do their part.

"You can't put your water upstream into the ditch and then have it come down and flood my land," Foster said.

"That's not neighbourly."

Coun. Scott Moffatt says the city is required to make sure municipal drains are functioning properly, but must pass the cost of maintenance and upgrades on to affected landowners. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Council's hands tied

On Wednesday, city council will officially receive a petition from 212 affected North Gower residents. The petition will ask councillors to reject the plan for the new drainage infrastructure.

However, the councillor for the affected area, Scott Moffatt, said the matter is out of council's hands. 

The Cranberry Creek drain has been in place since 1895, and the province's Drainage Act requires the city to keep such drains functioning properly, while passing the cost of any necessary upgrades to property owners.

The recently concluded appeal process did lead to the city being assigned a portion of the bill for construction of the pump, which is why many property owners saw their own assessments drop dramatically this week, Moffatt said.

Unhappy property owners can further appeal their assessments to a drainage tribunal, but after that, council really has no choice but to pass the bylaw that will set the project in motion, Moffatt said.

Still, Moffatt agreed with landowners that the city should do a better job explaining the complexities of the process around municipal drains.

"That's something we need to take away, so that we don't have these situations in the future where it's such a surprise," Moffatt said.

Foster Family Farm co-owner Mel Foster says the issues with drainage don't just affect farmers. 0:42

About the Author

Susan Burgess

Associate Producer

Susan Burgess is an associate producer on CBC Radio's All In A Day. You can reach her at Susan.Burgess@cbc.ca or on Twitter @susanmburgess.