Port Fuels: City hurries to change planning rules to try to beat the plant

The city has found another way to halt the Port Fuels waterfront gasification plant – but it’s a race against the clock that it might not win.

Sources say city officials are hustling to change zoning rules before a building permit is filed

The proposed garbage plant would be on a site of leased land on Pier 15 on the Hamilton waterfront. (Courtesy of Port Fuels and Materials Services Inc.)

The city thinks it has found another way to halt the Port Fuels waterfront gasification plant — but it's a race against the clock that it might not win.

If the city can pass a portion of its new zoning bylaw before Port Fuels asks for a building permit, it believes it can deny the company's request to build a new energy-from-waste plant on Hamilton Port Authority (HPA) lands. But if the city can't pass the zoning bylaw in time, it will likely be powerless to stop it.

Sources say the city has sped up the process to try to do just that.

It's a race that matters to Hamiltonians, on both sides of the issue. Port Fuels says the plant is high-tech, will create jobs and generate little pollution, and is already working through an intense environmental screening process with the province. But city councillors, public health officials and some activists worry about the image and health impacts the plant would have on Hamilton. 

Since the HPA land is federally owned, the city has little say in what happens with the plant. It initially thought it could refuse to rezone the land, but city staff researched more and found that the project complies, thanks to a zoning law that dates back to the 1950s.

But if the city can change its zoning bylaw before Port Fuels walks in for a building permit, the plant won't comply anymore, said Steve Robichaud, the city's planning director. So Port Fuels would need the city's permission after all.

The city is updating its zoning bylaw anyway. It's been doing it phase by phase since council passed a new official plan in 2013. Zoning bylaws and official plans go hand in hand — the latter is a guiding document, the former is the law governing how the land can be used.

Robichaud says the point isn't to move faster than Port Fuels. "That's not our intent." But officials do hope to pass the new portion of the zoning bylaw governing HPA lands by the end of the year.

Officially, the city says it is just going through a regular process. Sources tell CBC otherwise — that it is moving as fast as it can.

The zoning bylaw process isn't simple. City staff will meet with the HPA — the landlords of gasification plant land — this summer. Then the public will give input before council approves the final plan.

But Port Fuels's path isn't a simple one, either. Before it can apply for a building permit, the company needs the city to approve its site plan — a blueprint for where everything will go on the site, from shrubbery to parking.

Site plan agreements of a substantial size can take up to a year, Robichaud said.

Councillors questioned by the CBC would not comment on whether the city is rushing to beat Port Fuels. The zoning bylaw has to be updated anyway, they say.

City council has also asked the Ministry of Environment for a "bump up" — an independent environmental assessment of the project. But experts say that's unlikely to be granted, particularly since Port Fuels has done the environmental screening process.

The city passed its new official plan in 2013, Robichaud said. It's already done the downtown portion of the new zoning bylaw, as well as institutional and employment lands. This year, it will focus on HPA and rural lands. Next year, the city will focus on the residential part.

City planning laws don't apply to companies on HPA lands whose business directly relates to shipping and navigation. But planning staff argue that the Port Fuels plant doesn't fall into that category.