Big turnout for protest rally in Wainfleet

Don Stewart, aka “Mr. GTA,” said he was there to listen and to be convinced. The crowd was not best pleased. VOICE PHOTO

 

Yet simple typo means fears over population growth are likely unfounded; still no love for “Mr. GTA,” though

BY VOICE STAFF

On Tuesday evening last week, several hundred Wainfleet residents descended upon Brethren in Christ Church on Highway 3 for a, “Save Wainfleet—Fight the Urbanization of our Town” event—this in response to Wainfleet Town Council approving plans for a development called “Lakewood,” which would see 41 townhouse-style homes built on a stretch of beachfront property. The gathering was at times raucous, poignant, and often confounding.

Andrew Watts, an opponent of development in Wainfleet and co-organizer of the event, began with a map of the township projected on a screen. On it were a number of dots that Watts identified as land owned by developers, and speculated that development projects would occur. “These aren’t fact,” he conceded, adding: “I’m open to being sued by anyone who wants to.”

Watts argued that there was a plan afoot to develop much of Wainfleet. Last November, after questioning Lakewood’s planning consultant firm T. Johns, he received a letter from the firm that stated that the Niagara Region had projected a population of 29,800 in Wainfleet by 2031—up from just 7,000 now.

Watts provided this 29,800 figure to the columnist and writer William Thomas, who subsequently wrote a widely-circulated column in Niagara This Week decrying such a plan. It turned out, however, that the number was never correct.

Rino Mostacci, Niagara’s Commissioner of Planning and Development Services, responded that the Region was only projecting a population 7,900 in Wainfleet by 2031.

The confusion was all down to a misplaced comma, and mistaking “households” for “population.”

According to Cheryl Selig, the senior planner at T. Johns who wrote the letter to Watts, she had intended to say that the Region was projecting 2,980 total households in Wainfleet by 2031, but accidentally added an extra zero to this figure. Then she mistakenly described this as a population projection.

In fact, 2,980 homes in Wainfleet by 2031 would mean an increase of 400 homes above the present 2,580—a projected growth relatively similar to what the township has experienced over the last decade.

Had this correction been made clearer at last Tuesday’s meeting (Watts acknowledged the Region’s response, but was deeply skeptical) it’s possible that the night’s tone may have been different. But Watts—and most of the crowd—had other concerns, too.

One of Watts’ co-organizers, Lee Bott, has lived near the planned development for 35 years and has been fighting the plans for 11 years. She spoke passionately about the wildlife in the area, saying that the endangered Fowler’s Toad would have parts of its habitat destroyed, and that the felling of trees on the land has already driven out owls, and a nest of bald eagles.

Bott said that the loss of trees had already led to 15 feet of shoreline erosion, and predicted that this lack of protection could be dangerous if the lake experienced high winds blowing the water towards the new homes. She also was troubled by what she perceives to be violations of building rules, saying that “[the town and developers] are bypassing the bylaws by calling it a condo project.”

She referenced, specifically, a bylaw that prevents communal septic systems from being approved, and one that requires minimum lot sizes for homes be 2.5 acres. At Lakewood, the plan provides less than one acre per home.

“This is not about [Not In My Back Yard],” Bott said. “But I’m happy to be called a NIMBY.”

This was a common conviction among the gathered. The event’s subtitle, after all, was “Stop the Urbanization of Our Town,” and the biggest cheers were elicited whenever someone offered a variation of, “It’s about time Wainfleet starts taking back our township.”

It was clear that those in attendance took great pride in their township—in their backyard. And the feeling vibrating just below the surface of most if not all the opposition to Lakewood is one of having been disrespected.

Watts said repeatedly that, “Planning is about community,” and argued that the community had not really been consulted. Someone else mentioned that the developer had made no efforts to ingratiate itself with the community to build widespread support. In short: residents felt disrespected by the developers, and they felt disrespected by their representatives who had approved the plan proposed by those developers.

Added to the mix, those at the event were also not enthused by the people moving in, widely presumed to be former residents of the GTA. Local farmers had been outraged by flyers that were recently posted, complaining of the smell in Wainfleet and encouraging others to contact the Ministry of Environment.

“This is what Wainfleet smells like,” several said, arguing that only “cidiots” would be offended by such a thing.

Another farmer, Gerry Prentice, said that the presence of the posters “indicates that we already have one too many houses.”

He spoke poignantly about Wainfleet’s broader place in the province. “Farming used to mean something,” Prentice said. In the past few decades, he hasn’t felt that the people in power really care about making farmers, like those in Wainfleet, feel important.

The evening’s most uncomfortable moment occurred when new resident Don Stewart came to the microphone. He confessed to being a recent arrival from the GTA, eliciting groans, and said that he was there to listen—that he wanted to be convinced.

He said that when he looked at the map of Wainfleet, and saw those little dots where Watts had speculated development would occur, to him, “It looks pretty good. It’s a big piece of property, Wainfleet, and those seem to be fairly spread out.”

Stewart wondered whether, considering tens of thousands of people are expected to move to Niagara in the next 15 years, might not it be inevitable that Wainfleet has to accept some of them.

The room began to mutter more loudly.

Stewart kept going. “I want to be convinced. So, Andrew, can you communicate to me, what is the negative impact of 41 high-end places on the lake—”

This did it for the crowd.

“Go back to the city,” someone shouted.

A man jumped up to the microphone. “Here, I’ll explain why,” he started before Watts pointed out that he’d cut in front of another woman. He apologized and ceded to her, but as soon as she had finished he jumped right back up again. And then another man took the microphone.

“Sorry Mr. GTA, I’ve got a little more for you. Binbrook is a disaster, and the only people that like it are the people from the GTA…the way it needs to be [in Wainfleet] is the way it is now, it needs to be agricultural, and it needs to stay that way forever.”

When Stewart sat down, a reporter from another newspaper, having not caught his name when Stewart first spoke, approached him to ask for it. Stewart grimaced, shook his head, and waved the reporter away. He left the hall quickly at the end, without speaking to anyone.

Andrew Watts submitted an application to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) in early August, and hopes have the council vote overturned. He appealed to the crowd Tuesday night for support, saying that he wanted as many people as possible behind him, and also solicited donations so that a planning consultant could be hired to help argue on their behalf.

But the matter becomes murkier when considering what exactly can be done. The Lakewood site was already the subject of an OMB hearing in 2009, at which the Board declined to overturn the original approval of the project from 2007. Watts’ current filing addresses the specific site plan. This means that even if Watts, Bott, and other opponents of the development are successful, it’s only the site plan that would need revising.

Of course, a continued delay of the project, as such a finding might accomplish, may be enough to permanently scuttle Lakewood. Developers typically require the sale of 60 percent of the units before beginning construction, and, like the failed condominium in Port Dalhousie, which received approval but didn’t sell, leaving a patch of empty land, the site could stay empty for awhile.

But even beyond Lakewood, Wainfleet residents are on high alert for incoming developments—and for incoming ex-city-dwellers. This is unlikely to change.

 

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