Environmentalists are applauding the outcome of what they say is one of the most important farmland protection battles in the history of the Ontario Municipal Board, over a hotly contested site on the edge of Niagara Falls, Ont., just outside the protected Greenbelt.
After a decade-long fight over a proposed residential community for seniors — and a grandfathered development application — the board ruled this month against a group of landowners, the city and the region.
The decision blocks the proposed expansion of the urban boundary of Niagara Falls to the northwest, effectively protecting 90 hectares of prime agricultural land.
Against the backdrop of a provincial review of the 10-year-old Greenbelt Plan, currently underway, environmental lawyer David Donnelly says this could be a “bellwether” case, suggesting there’s an appetite for expanding protection beyond the current boundaries.
“Every other community should go through the same exercise that we had to painfully go through for over a decade to get this land protected,” said Donnelly, who represented two of the parties fighting the proposed development.
The landowners include a church and an Italian cultural club, both of whom have invested ample resources toward the promise of a seniors’ community. For them, the verdict has triggered profound disappointment.
“We followed all the rules, only to get the door slammed on us,” said Joe Maggiolo, president of Club Italia, which had planned to build about 125 residential units for seniors on its property. “For our club, this is total devastation. Our plans for the future, they just cut us right down.”
But local resident Jean Grandoni, who opposed the development, said fighting to retain the shrinking agricultural base is “a matter of survival.”
“It’s high time that the agricultural communities got first choice of the land, and not the cities, because all they’ve been leaving us is the leftovers,” she said. “We’re trying to preserve what’s left.”
The proposal, for a total of nearly 1,400 residential units, would have required expanding the urban boundary of Niagara Falls and changing the designation of the 90-hectare site from rural to urban.
Although the application was approved by the city and the region, it was appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board by Grandoni, among several others.
Because the proposal was submitted in 2004, before the Places to Grow Act, which guides current policies for growth across Ontario, came into effect, the board relied on the 1997 planning rules.
It sought to add to the urban boundary land that is currently under crops, in addition to the Italian club and church, a small motel, a trailer park and a few houses.
Those in favour of the development argued it was justified by growth projections for the area and the lack of available land for new detached and semi-detached homes.
“This area is a better fit being used for something else besides farming,” said Peter Lowe, an elder at the Redeemer Bible Church, which is among the landowners.
Niagara Falls city solicitor Ken Beaman said estimates indicate that the population will increase from 89,100 in 2011 to 106,800 in 2031. Various landowners submitted different plans, but the city had envisioned dedicating the site to 949 detached units, he said.
In its decision, the board applauded “the intention to explore a very full range of housing types and alternatives for a complete community.” However, it found that the city and the region “(have) not demonstrated that there is a need for an urban boundary expansion.”
In a statement, Niagara Region chair Alan Caslin said, “We are disappointed with the board’s decision and will be considering our next steps in the coming days in consultation with the proponents and the City of Niagara Falls.”
Ontario Municipal Board decisions may be appealed only on the grounds that the board made an error in law.
In the meantime, Susan Swail, Greenbelt program manager at Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based environmental group, sees the decision as an “opportunity” for Niagara Falls “to grow up instead of out.”
“There are opportunities for urban renewal in the downtown areas, where they can redevelop the sites to create more complete communities,” she said. “They can get some density in there, so they can get some transit services.”