From time to time, although I prefer to go by train, I drive to Toronto or Windsor, and when I do, I do so for a specific reason: a meeting, a conference, an opera performance. I take the train when travelling alone providing that VIA's schedule fits my needs. Otherwise I drive. I want to get to my destination as quickly as I can with the least amount of hassle, stress and delay. As well, I usually take the 403 to Toronto if my destination is downtown. It's a more relaxing drive with lots of trees and other vegetation and few commercial distractions or trucks.
I suspect I'm not alone in this preference. People take the 400 series highways in order to get where they want to go fast. It's not a Sunday afternoon drive as a recreational diversion.
But apparently that's not how some members of council see it. About half of them, and a majority of the planning committee, see nothing but dollar signs in the headlights of the cars and trucks barrelling down the 401 at Wellington Road. Sixty thousand of them per day, according to planning committee chair Bud Polhill. All of them just looking for a diversion, a reason to get off the 401 and into London.
And what would that diversion be? A shopping centre, of course. With a beer store and a cinema for the latest movie releases. What could be more perfect? And after the movie and picking up a two-four, surely they'll be tempted to venture further north along Wellington Road, maybe right into downtown and ending up at city hall where they can catch the latest episode of Fontana's Folly.
It was more than two years ago when the mayor first dropped hints about the proposal from PenEquity Realty Corp. It was going to be “an incredible signature piece”, he proclaimed back in April of 2011. The mayor finds many things “incredible”. Increasingly, so does the public.
And PenEquity president David Johnston agreed. “We will provide something unique, something different to draw people from Waterloo, Woodstock, Sarnia and Windsor. It will be exciting," he told the Free Press's Norman DeBono the following month.
And indeed, two years later some members of council are excited about the prospects of a shopping mall with 600,000 square feet of big box stores, restaurant chains and movie theatres. Add a gas bar—that's what will really pull in the crowds—and a hotel for those who stay for the late show, and what's not to love?
But there's a little hitch in the works. In the middle of the 76 acre property to be developed is a woodland of about 10,000 trees which had previously not been evaluated as to its significance. It's what is known as an “unevaluated vegetation patch”. Turns out, it is significant since it contains rare and threatened species of flora and fauna. In fact, it scored “high” on five of the eight criteria used to assess the significance of natural heritage features when only one “high” would be sufficient to rate that designation. Natural heritage features are protected by the Provincial Policy Statement; local councils can't just ignore that.
Then it turns out that inside this woodland is a wetland which filters and stores water as well as providing a habitat for birds and animals. It functions to deal with the increasing number of sudden storms we are experiencing and protect against flooding. Apparently no one on the planning committee raised that issue but wetlands are regulated by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA). It sent a letter to council advising it that it would not give its approval for the development if the wetland were to be drained.
Apparently none of these objections carried much weight with those who saw nothing but the economic renewal of London coming out of the PenEquity application.
The mayor was dismissive. He didn't want passersby saying “Look at that unique woodlot. That's London,” when they could be looking at an “incredible development”. When chided by Paul Hubert for being sarcastic, he responded, “I can be sarcastic. I can be anything I want.”
And there's the rub. Not only was the mayor deriding the value of natural heritage, but his choice of words betrayed his ignorance of environmental stewardship. “Woodlots” are stands of trees managed for commercial purposes for fuel or building materials or Christmas trees. “Woodlands” are natural heritage features and we have been treating them as woodlots or nuisances far too long. The loss of woodlands has resulted in more pollution, reduction in diversity of species, and increased land erosion and higher summer temperatures, not to mention the loss of beauty and recreation. I remember well the many Sundays when my father would take us kids for a walk in the woods, pointing out all the birds and animals and plants and teaching us their names.
But for our mayor they are just a barrier to development. And the wood could possibly bring in a little bit of income. Besides, the developer had offered to plant a few replacement trees, not as many as he would cut down, and not nearly as big, of course, but hey, he could even plant them in places where trees had been lost to the emerald ash borer. And eventually they would grow.
Stephen Orser was even more disdainful, referring to the significant heritage feature as a “vegetable patch”. Likewise, Paul VanMeeerbergen saw the situation as “some woods and some brush to be removed.” And Dale Henderson pointed out that the developer was prepared to spend $100 million; he wouldn't be interested in talking with groups who wanted to talk about birds, he would want to talk to businessmen, yes businessmen who, unlike politicians, “don't talk for ten minutes and say nothing.” Well, he should know.
They, along with others, wanted to get on with it. After all, as the mayor had pointed out, there were 1,200 jobs at stake in a city with an unemployment rate of 9.8%. And he, who had promised 10,000 net new jobs over his term of office, couldn't afford to wait. Plus, three to four million dollars in taxes! Maybe the jobs were not quite like the 15,000 manufacturing jobs that had been lost over the past few years, and some people were saying that these weren't important jobs, but were they telling the people who hold these jobs that they are not important, Fontana wanted to know.
Not exactly, although Sandy White accused (falsely, I may add) Paul Hubert of having said something like that way back when he was describing his “Hire One” initiative. Why she felt a need to do so is anyone's guess. Perhaps it was Hubert's turn to be mocked or chided; perhaps she simply didn't understand the report but, having supported ignoring the staff recommendation to protect the woodland, felt a need to say something. In any case, she had received an email from someone who had been looking for a job and finally found one in a pizza place. He was, she said, “Happy. Happy. Happy.Happy. Happy.” I lost count.
Bill Armstrong, too, managed to overcome his concerns about the environment although, he pointed out, he is usually thought of as “a tree hugger.” But what are 10,000 trees compared to the need for jobs he sees in his work everyday, serving eviction notices. People are desperate. He agreed with Orser who had waxed poetic over the misery and tears he had witnessed while delivering the fridge magnets obtained at taxpayer expense to his voters.
As for Orser himself, he had held down minimum wage jobs washing dishes or worse, driving cab, but eventually he had created a small business and today he was a COUNCILLOR. Not full time, but a councillor nonetheless.
But the promise of thousands of jobs were of little comfort for those who sought protection for the woodland.
Harold Usher started it off. He wasn't satisfied that the trees had to be sacrificed. Staff had recommended against it after reviewing the consultants' reports. He wanted the matter to be referred back to staff for further discussions with the developer to find a way to allow the development without taking out the woodland.
It was a position shared by Hubert and Joni Baechler. Hubert didn't like the polarization he saw occurring. Besides, previous staff reports had indicated that the city already had too much retail space available. Would the jobs simply relocate? Would there be a net increase?
For Baechler, jobs or the environment was a false dichotomy. If we want to attract youth and keep them here, we have to have a robust natural heritage system. That's what people want. Look at Kitchener-Waterloo, the protection it gave to natural heritage. Besides, Baechler chairs the UTRCA. It regulates the wetlands and there's no way it will approve draining it. Why hadn't the committee discussed that?
Probably because Baechler no longer sits on the planning committee although she had wanted to and had offered to chair it. But foolish, self-interested heads prevailed when committee appointments were being made and the committee lost its most intelligent and experienced voice. Who else would know that London has 178 stormwater management ponds constructed at a cost of $1M apiece? And here we go draining wetlands which perform the same function for free?
Perhaps Nancy Branscombe, but she had missed the meeting. Still, she was skeptical of the jobs claims for retail. She too wanted to be more like Kitchener-Waterloo which has dubbed itself "the intelligent city."
“Retail follows wealth-creation jobs,” she pointed out. “We are doing it backwards.” As far as she was concerned, big box developments were a dime a dozen along the 401. Nothing unique about them. Seen one, you've seen them all.
Those were Judy Bryant's sentiments, too. London has only 8% woodland coverage, she noted, when we should be aiming for 30%. But if they saved the woodland, “It could be a spectacular development.”
Perhaps the most compelling argument came from Denise Brown who continues to distance herself from the Fontana 8. She had canvassed the businesses along Wellington Road to the north. Not one of them was in support of the development. It would simply mean moving jobs from the north to the south. There wouldn't be any net new jobs. It would mean the closing of nearby stores and restaurants. After all, there are only so many retail dollars available in the city. Look at all the businesses that had gone belly-up over the past few years and decades. Look at what had happened to Westmount Mall. Look at all the empty retail spaces. Look at what had happened downtown.
Indeed. Look at the announcement from Rona a few days later that it would be closing its Summerside store.
Listening to the debate, I was convinced that council would plough ahead, natural heritage be damned.
Fontana was tired; it had been going on for hours and the debate wasn't getting anywhere. Apparently he too thought he had the vote. He called the question on the referral.
The city clerk announced the results. The motion passed 8 to 7.
I couldn't believe it. Based on their speeches, Baechler, Branscombe, Matt Brown, Hubert, Usher and Denise Brown should have voted yes on the referral; that was only seven. Who was the eighth? I couldn't read the screen before the results disappeared.
The answer came by way of Twitter. Sandy White had voted yes.
I could be wrong, but all indications are that she had gotten confused and thought she was voting on giving the development the green light. Instead, she supported sending it back to staff to work with the developer to protect the woodland.
She's not the first person to have voted in error. It happens.
In this case, it was an error that protected 10,000 trees for another month.
Congratulations, Councillor White. It's something to put on your pamphlet when you seek re-election.
As for development along the 401, on my way back from Toronto, I take the 402 to Wonderland Road and the back roads home to Byron. There are lots of trees and little commercial. It's very restful.
Unfortunately, that too is changing.