'Pandora's box:' Environmental groups wary of policy that would allow moving wetlands in Hamilton

Hamilton Conservation Authority is contemplating a controversial policy allowing wetlands and other natural features to be relocated in cases of nearby development. Some local groups are wary.

Some say a policy could help in the wake of provincial zoning orders, but others call it 'human folly'

The Hamilton Conservation Authority is seeking feedback from the public on drafting a biodiversity offsetting policy. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The Hamilton Conservation Authority is contemplating a controversial policy that would allow wetlands to be relocated to make way for development, and some local groups are wary.

Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, said she has "very mixed feelings" about the prospect of a biodiversity offsetting policy. Such a policy would mean developers could remove some natural features to build on the space, and replace those features elsewhere.

"It kind of feels like they're opening a bit of a Pandora's box," she said.

In its online posting, the HCA says biodiversity offsetting "should always be a last resort."

A lengthy discussion paper accompanies its call for feedback from the public, which it will accept until July 31. 

Concerns for Ancaster wetland proposal

Don McLean, head of advocacy group Citizens at City Hall (CATCH), says "shifting" around natural features isn't the way to go.

"Wetlands are where they are because nature put them there, and the idea of putting them somewhere else is order to allow development is a bad idea," he said. 

Among his concerns: that the policy might revive a proposal to relocate a wetland and stream segment in the headwaters of Ancaster Creek. A developer proposed building warehouses and a parking lot in the area and moving the wetland elsewhere.

The idea sparked environment groups and the public to speak out in opposition, and the HCA board rejected that proposal in June. That's when there was no policy or guidelines related to offsetting in place. 

The Hamilton Conservation Authority board recently rejected a proposal to pave over 140 Garner Rd. E. in order to construct warehouses. (Google Maps)

But prior to that vote in November 2020, the board had directed staff to explore this policy. 

"If you change the policy, then you can open things up again," McLean said. 

No-go areas will include provincially-significant wetlands

Lukasik also pointed to the connection. 

"Those are important ecosystems that play critical roles, especially in the headwater areas of watersheds," she said. "To think that you could easily replicate that somewhere else, I think, is human folly."

Though the policy is in its initial stages, Scott Peck, HCA director of watershed, planning and engineering, said "no-go areas" would include provincially significant wetlands.

But the Ancaster property at 140 Garner Rd. E. is not one of those, he said. It's referred to as a "locally significant" wetland.

"If there was an offsetting policy in place and somebody came wanting to do something with that wetland on that property, we would consider it under the policy framework of the day," Peck said. 

Thundering Waters controversy

Biodiversity offsetting policies have been developed by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, Credit Valley Conservation and the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. 

But similar moves have drawn criticism in nearby Niagara. 

A group of environmentalists and Indigenous activists camped out to protest a planned development in the Thundering Waters Forest in 2017. The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority planned to launch a biodiversity offsetting pilot project for the lands. (Owen Bjorgan)

In 2015, the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) planned to launch a pilot project on biodiversity offsetting for lands by Thundering Waters Golf Club that were part of a $1.4-billion housing development. 

Protestors camped out on the lands, and allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the NPCA — which now has a reworked board — led to scrutiny by Ontario's auditor general. 

Among the auditor general's 2018 report findings, Bonnie Lysyk said the NPCA hadn't studied the ecosystem "to determine if it contained unique features that cannot be replaced."

Peck acknowledged that an offsetting policy would likely draw comments "from across the spectrum," from those seeing benefits to those seeing it as a "slippery slope."

'Premised on destruction'

Anne Bell, director of conservation and education at Ontario Nature, called offsetting "risky" and questioned what the thresholds would be for ensuring it's used as a last resort. 

"It's a trade off that's premised on destruction," she said. "You destroy something, and then you do your best to compensate for that loss."

While the conservation authority lists achieving a "net gain" among its guiding principles, it also says offset areas will need to be equal in size and quality as the original. Developers have to make up for any impacts. 

Policy could be protective move

While the feature might be recreated elsewhere, she said people around the destroyed environment will lose out. She wonders how consideration for climate change and landscape resilience, wildlife habitats and corridors, and consultation with Indigenous communities will fit into the policy.

But she also noted the provincial government's ministerial zoning orders (MZO) have given it the ability to override local zoning rules. A strong policy at the ready, she said, would help.

"If we are going to lose things, then better that we can actually require compensation to the actual scale and actual standards," she said. 

In its online post, the HCA says MZOs can allow the Ontario government to make the decision to offset.

But in that case, a compensation agreement would be made through the HCA permit process — and that would have to follow the offsetting policy. 

Lukasik agreed that it was a "catch 22" and that she has additional questions.

A summary of feedback and a draft policy is expected at a board meeting in the fall. 


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