South Cameron woodlot 'always planned for development,' says Windsor mayor

Parts of a wetland in Windsor has lost its provincially significant designation. While the mayor celebrates the potential for development, the environment commissioner of Ontario worries for floods.

Environmentalists raise issue with city potentially losing more wetlands

Parts of the South Cameron woodlot are now open for potential development after their provincially significant wetland designation was removed. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

The parts of the South Cameron woodlot that had their provincially significant wetland designation peeled back were always scheduled for development, according to Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens.

Dilkens announced the designation retraction for around 20 hectares (50 acres) of wetland in south Windsor Thursday and thanked the province for their work in getting it lifted.

"It was always planned for development," he said on Friday. "The province simply didn't do their job the first time around."

He mentioned the designation originally included areas that "already had sewers put in" and how hundreds of landowners had been paying property taxes on land they could do nothing with.

Mayor Drew Dilkens says when the designation was first placed on the woodlot, no Ministry staff actually came to study the location. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

One of those landowners is Abdullah Hussein, who owns four properties inside the woodlot.

He purchased them in 2014 when it was inexpensive, without realizing he wouldn't be able to build anything because of the PSW designation.

"I do pay property tax for this land, yet I cannot benefit from it. So it's just like I'm paying property taxes for dirt," Hussein said.

However, for landowners like him, they still need to satisfy environmental assessments, any Essex Region Conservation Authority regulations and other regular development procedures before they can build.

'Erroneous wetland designation'

The way the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry originally decided on the woodlot's designation was by studying an aerial topographic map, according to Dilkens.

Last December when Dilkens met with the premier, he raised the issue of the PSW designation.

According to Derek Coronado, co-ordinator for Citizens Environment Alliance, the issue isn't so much that the woodlot is no longer considered provincially significant.

Rather, he thinks the problem is with the mayor "actively lobbying" for the designation to be lifted, instead of looking for different areas in the city for development.

"To actually have municipal politicians actively lobbying to undermine environmental protections, that's something else, and that's something we shouldn't see," Coronado said.

'Death by a thousand cuts'

A spokesperson for the ministry said in an email that it was a landowner's consultant who submitted an "updated wetland evaluation" for the woodlot in 2017.

"After reviewing the file the ministry determined that portions of the wetland should be removed because they no longer met the criteria for provincial significance," the email reads.

For environment commissioner of Ontario Dianne Saxe, this retraction is another example of the Ministry doing "a really poor job" of protecting wetlands across the province.

She said wetlands are degraded, with road salt, run off, pollution, calling it "death by a thousand cuts."

"And then if you look really closely after it's been degraded for a while, you think, 'Oh it's not provincially significant anymore, because we've damaged it so much,'" Saxe said.

The image Dilkens shared on Facebook shows almost the entirety of South Cameron woodlot as being designated a PSW in Jan. 31, 2019, compared to Feb. 28, 2019 when the designation was removed from part of the green space. (Mayor Drew Dilkens/Facebook)

In a place like Windsor especially, she said, with bad flood events and already a low percentage of wetland acreage, this woodlot needs to be protected.

According to the 2018 Environmental Protection Report by Saxe, "even a wetland as small as two hectares can retain water runoff from an area 70 times its size, buffering against flooding."

Saxe points to a report by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, which talks about "natural infrastructure" as an under-utilized option in fighting rising flood damage.

The September 2018 report mentions a study by the Intact Centre, which assessed how wetlands could potentially affect financial impacts of flooding.

The woodlot is segmented into numerous properties that are owned privately. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

The study used computer modelling systems to simulate a major flood in an urban site. Results show flood damage costs are 38 per cent lower when you leave wetlands in their natural state. As for the rural site, flood damage costs came out to be 29 per cent lower.

When looking at the province's wetland conservation strategy for 2017-2030 by the previous government, one of the targets mention halting the net loss of wetland area and function where wetland loss has been the greatest by 2025.

Saxe said even though the Ministry no longer deems parts of South Cameron woodlot to be provincially significant, "the city can absolutely protect it" through its official plan and natural heritage policies.

"It's an irreplaceable treasure," she said.

With files from Dale Molnar and Angelica Haggert


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