This past week Niagara Regional Council was tasked with endorsing an option for our Natural Environment System (NES), which is an important component of Niagara’s new Official Plan. This document will guide how and where growth will take place across Niagara. The NES component specifically addresses planning policies with respect to Niagara’s natural environment and response to climate change. A decision on the NES was critical to begin the next phase of work on the natural environment work program, allowing for the development of mapping and policies. Staff presented council with three options:

  1. Option 3A – Consisting of Provincial minimums
  2. Option 3B – Exceeding Provincial minimums, and protections for woodlands in urban areas
  3. Option 3C – Exceeding Provincial minimums, and protections for woodlands, and protections for small linkages between woodlands and wetlands, as well as buffers on non-regulated features in urban areas

Regional staff recommended Option 3B after extensive consultation with the public and local planning staff. They felt this was the best option to balance competing interests between constituent concerns, local planning comments, and input from developers. However, they also clarified they would be happy to proceed with whatever direction council determined.

The Planning Committee recommended 3B after an extremely close vote attempting to change the endorsement to 3C. I once again tried to amend the recommendation at council to 3C, however council opted to endorse both 3B and 3C to appease some concerns over mapping and avoid making a decision on a singular option but still allow for our Official Plan work to proceed.

I’m fully supportive of Option 3C and I’m happy to tell you why. The singular question before us is, “What natural features do we want to protect in our urban areas?”

My answer is all of them.

Our urban areas are the ones that will experience the most growth and development over the next few decades. I believe these natural features are the ones that truly reflect our local character and charm. It’s what will preserve our “small town feel” in the face of growth, allowing for growth outside of those areas.

The most important aspect of Option 3C is the linkage features. These linkages connect natural spaces and more accurately reflect a systems-based approach (i.e., science!) to managing and protecting them. We’re not talking about building anything new here. These linkages already exist. Therefor the question is whether we want to acknowledge and protect them, or consider them optional. Failure to protect them could potentially make them developable!

Opponents of 3C were primarily concerned with municipal autonomy. They felt local municipalities should be responsible for determining what local linkages should be protected through local planning decisions and policies. They were concerned about the Region “taking over” planning decisions. In other words, they felt 3C was stepping on their municipal toes and local councils were better to make those decision.

The reality is what we’re trying to accomplish is setting a minimum standard for environmental policies. Local planning and councils have the ability to go above and beyond a Regional policy direction should they wish. By allowing for 3B and hoping local municipalities implement 3C, we’re really missing the mark when it comes to the opportunity before us. I was ready to embrace the responsibility before us even if others were not.

When you diffuse responsibility across a great number of people (i.e., the 100-plus councillors in our 12 local municipalities) it becomes the responsibility of no one. We’ll end up with a hodgepodge of environmental planning policies scattered across Niagara, because everyone could, and most likely will, make different decisions. No one wants that. And regardless of what option is selected down the road, the Region is a partner with our local municipalities. They must work together, collaboratively and cohesively. The do so now, frequently and effectively.

So, the fight for 3C will live for another day, another meeting and another vote. I truly felt we had an opportunity before us to set a vision for Niagara to the benefit of generations to come. There’s a bigger picture here that seemed to be lost on a few. Municipalities are important partners in the fight against climate change. In fact, good land use planning is one of our most effective tools for adapting to climate change, and once we lose our green spaces, they are gone forever.

Let’s not lose sight of the incredible opportunity before us and the gift we can leave our children, and their children for generations to come.