Ministry request puts road project in limbo
A hearing with regards to the proposed reconstruction of a Clearview Sideroad relating to the closure of County Road 91 has been adjourned indefinitely after the classification of the project under the Environmental Assessment (EA) Act came into question.
In what was a surprise move to parties, the Environmental Assessment Branch of the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has reached out to the municipality asking for information regarding estimated project costs and traffic study data to justify the classification of the 26/27 Sideroad Nottawasaga reconstruction project, near Duntroon.
“Ministry staff were subsequently provided additional information regarding the project which may indicate that the Project is not properly classified as a Schedule A+ and therefore not exempt from the Act. Section 15.1.1 of the Act allows a proponent to proceed with an undertaking as long as they do so in accordance with the Class EA,” writes Environmental Assessment Branch director Kathleen O’Neill. “Failure to meet the requirements set out in the Class EA would result in non-compliance with the Act. If the project has been misclassified as Schedule A+ rather than as Schedule B or C, the project would not be exempt from the requirements of the Act.”
O’Neill goes on to say, “The ministry has received new information indicating cost for the reconstruction of Sideroad 26/27 may be over $4 million, which would indicate that the project should be subject to a higher level of assessment under the Class EA schedules.”
She states, projects classified Schedule A+ would be for roads used for the same purpose, use, capacity and at the same location and documents indicate that the road will be widened to accommodate increased vehicular traffic volumes due to the road being identified as the alternative route for local traffic given the closure of County Road 91 due to the Walker Quarry expansion.
Clearview Township Mayor Doug Measures said the latest development calls into question the autonomy of the township to manage its roads, and that this is really a disagreement between two provincial bodies, the ministry and the Niagara Escarpment Commission.
“This entire project comes back to decisions being made by the Niagara Escarpment Commission about road authority,” said Measures. “The municipality has a responsibility through both the Municipal Act and the Highway Traffic Act that we are the road authority and we should be able to undertake maintenance, repairs and improvements to our roads.”
“I think we’ve followed all the correct procedures and unfortunately the move to ask for an adjournment at this time is based on that we just don’t have the answer from the Ministry if the Schedule A+ is clear or not,” said Measures.
The potential change in position by the Ministry, which has long supported the classification of the project, most recently by previous minister Jeff Yurek last year, came as a surprise to township officials.
“First, may I say that your letter comes as a great shock to the township and would seem to have been prompted by the convenient delivery to you of somewhat misleading and irrelevant ‘new information’, mere weeks before the township’s appeals are heard before the Niagara Escarpment Hearing Office (NEHO),” said Clearview CAO John Ferguson in his response. “Second, in addition to our disappointment in the fact of the Ministry’s intervention at this late date, it is also troubling to think that the Ministry would contemplate a reversal of its long-held position on the characterization of this project as a Schedule A+ project. The township has spent significant efforts and public funds and faced damaging criticism from our municipal neighbours and some members of the public as a result of our reliance on the Ministry’s assessment of the project. A reversal of the Ministry’s position will have major repercussions, not only for the township, but also for the NEHO and all parties and participants to the upcoming NEHO hearing and would be an unprecedented interference.”
Ferguson provided traffic data and costing for the project at $3.5 million, but acknowledges that costs will have gone up due to inflation and exacerbated by the pandemic, making the claim that monetary value is not listed as a condition of scheduling. He said 26/27 Sideroad does not even meet the township’s minimum standards and will be upgraded as a local road only.
Blue Mountain Watershed Trust is one of the project opponents that has been calling into question the classification of the project for many years, lobbying the various ministers to “bump up” the project to a Schedule C, no longer exempting the project from the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act.
George Powell said BMWT has been fighting this at enormous expense to their volunteer organization, which is usually focussed on more feel-good community projects.
“Our concern was that the environmental impacts were significant and should be looked at, and we were supported by the Niagara Escarpment Commission,” said Powell, referring to the process that ultimately resulted in the hearing.
By widening the road, Powell said the work will have an environmental impact on fisheries and wildlife in the area, which he notes in quite scenic.
He said if the project hadn’t been exempt from the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act, “the thing would have been done properly, the public would have had an opportunity to get involved, and they would have had to look at alternatives.”
Powell said there are viable alternatives that were never explored because Clearview Township was bending over backwards to accommodate Walker Industries, which was negotiated behind closed doors.
“I’ve got a real issue with the way that thing was negotiated by Clearview,” he said.
Earlier this year, Councillor Thom Paterson said would be bringing forward a notice of motion asking council to reconsider its position with regards to the work on 26/27 and the closing of 91, which will include the potential withdrawal of site specific policy amendment to the Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP) and rescinding the development permit application appeal.
“In May, I postponed bringing a motion to council with some optimism that solutions could be found that would not compromise inter-regional traffic flow, do harm to ecologically sensitive Escarpment lands and add a financial burden on our taxpayers,” said Paterson in a statement. “I am very concerned that the township is missing an opportunity to take a leadership role in finding a good faith alternative to the current Road Improvement Agreement (RIA) that works in the mutual best interest of our residents, our neighbouring municipalities and the primary signatories to the agreement.
I’m disappointed in our current response to the Ministry of the Environment and the resultant adjournment of the hearing. Regardless of the outcome regarding the classification of this project, it is no longer the relatively small $500,000 road upgrade originally planned but is now close to a $4 million road construction project.”
“The RIA, as originally conceived, did not include the construction of Sideroad 26/27 or the closure of former County Road 91. These later inclusions are no longer essential or in the best interest of the public. All the key objectives of each party to the agreement have been met. The quarry is shipping, Concession 10 is being built, improvements have been made to the former County Road 91 and local jobs have been preserved. What remains is to build Sideroad 26/27, a road we do not need, and to close former County Road 91, a road we do need. So why do it? I will continue to ask the Township to call on all parties to the current RIA to find a mutually beneficial solution and abandon the construction of Side Road 26/27, keep former County Road 91 open and withdraw all related applications and appeals to the NEC.”