Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Saving the South March Highlands: Looking to the Future

The first thing I want to say is that any discussion of saving the South March Highlands has to start by acknowledging that, indeed, some of it has been saved and placed in public ownership and that we might not even be discussing saving the rest of it if that was not so.

On November 10, 2000 the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton announced the purchase of 556 acres of the South March Highlands for $1.6 million at the urging of Kanata Regional Councillor Alex Munter who has stated “his biggest achievement would be putting South March Highland into public ownership to keep it protected.“ The source for these statements was Kanata History Net, which is no longer online, however the text of the November 10, 2000 announcement can be found at http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=46087029890&topic=16257.

So the signs recognizing the South March Highlands Conservation Forest are no joke

Indeed a lot of people have put thousands of hours of volunteer work into building a sustainable trail system in the South March Highlands Conservation Forest and getting it recognized, which is what these signs represent. And more is to come in the spring with a comprehensive new map and signage system on the trails. For more background see
OMBA Forums - South March Highlands: Past, Present, and Future.

(click/double click on image to enlarge)

So how does the protected South March Highlands Conservation Forest relate to the South March Highlands as a whole. Simply put, it is part of one ecosystem. While the Conservation Forest may be able to "survive" on it's own retaining the trails and a forest of sorts, it's biological diversity is dependent on being part of a larger ecosystem. If we destroy the surrounding ecosystem it's diversity will undoubtedly be affected, the endangered and at risk species in the forest being most affected.

The question becomes where do we focus our resources in fighting to protect the broader ecosystem.

The focus so far has been on the KNL/Urbandale lands that are threatened with imminent development, which of course is a "nice" way of saying destruction. These lands were originally classified as Environmentally Protected and their development has been fought by the community and environmentalists every step of the way. But it is very difficult to fight an industry that is dealing with a city whose staff may have worked for this industry in the past or expect to work for it in the future, an industry with political connections that donates large sums of money to the politicians who decide on their proposals and an industry with it's own Kangaroo Court, the Ontario Municipal Board. Unfortunately much of this history is not known to the broader general public who have been told by the developer's well funded public relations campaign that they have done everything by the book and that their proposal has all the proper approvals.

Of course this is their version of history. The fact is that the approval process has been replete with all sorts of improprieties and misuse of power and outright ignoring and violation of laws and regulations. Even with all that, the approvals were conditional on the developer meeting multiple conditions that have not been met, and that the developer and the City seem to be prepared, indeed anxious, to simply ignore.

There have been some positive developments within the last few months including the designation of the Kizell Pond as a provincially significant wetland and the revelation that the developer's stormwater management plans are grossly inadequate for the development proposed. These are vital issues that need to remain in the forefront of the public and nothing in this post is meant to suggest otherwise.

This all being said, fighting a development that has been approved, even if it never should have been, is a huge undertaking requiring extensive resources that will never be able to match the resources available to the developer.

None of this is to say that this battle should not be fought but to call attention to other lands in the South March Highlands that also need to be saved but for which the battle may not be as difficult and for which victory might indeed be probable if the fight is taken up early enough.

We are talking about the lands north of the South March Highlands Conservation Forest, a large portion of which are owned by Metcalfe Realty. Unlike the KNL/Urbandale lands, these lands are not approved for development and are still zoned Environmental Protection. And, unlike the KNL/Urbandale lands, the owner is willing to sell and the City is interested in purchasing. This was confirmed by a city staffer as recently as last month, but has been fairly common knowledge for quite some time. Indeed the City has been quietly adding to the Conservation Forest by buying up land in what was known as the "dark side" when it became available at a reasonable price.

The biggest problem in getting political will for the City to buy the KNL/Urbandale lands has been the price for land approved for development, even if it was for sale. On the other hand as fiscal a conservative and non-environmentalist as one could find on the previous City Council, Gord Hunter, has publicly proposed the City purchase the lands north of the Conservation Forest. That being noted, it should much less difficult to convince the City to purchase these lands than it would be to convince them to purchase the KNL/Urbandale lands.

What is needed is a real campaign focused on these lands. And I understand resources are scarce and the natural inclination is to fight for the lands under imminent threat first. But every minute these lands are ignored is an opportunity for the landowner to start quietly working to get their status changed so that they too are under imminent threat, and much more costly to acquire.

At the moment the City is just quietly waiting for the landowner to offer the land to them at fair value for land zoned Environmental Protection while the landowner is offering the land for sale at the price of land approved for development.

There is a way to break through this but it requires political will and political will requires public pressure. The City must move now to start the process to negotiate a fair price for the land based on it's current zoning and status and inform the landowner if that is not successful the City will begin the process to expropriate the land at fair market value for it's existing status and zoning.

Other than some additional administrative costs this will not cost the City more than it is willing to pay for the land. That is a big factor in gaining Council support in these "fiscally conservative" times.

This will require public pressure. It will require an organized effort. But the automatic rejection arguments that the land is too costly and that it is not for sale and that there is an approved development proposal do not exist. Expropriation can be promoted simply as a mechanism to determine a fair price for the land.

This is a winnable battle if undertaken seriously. And right now we need some winnable battles. It may even change the mindset of City Council, making saving most of the South March Highlands a possibility for all to work towards.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

start getting local companies on board... big companies like Cisco, march networks, alcatel etc... have big pull in the city.
If one can gather momentum to encourage employees of these companies to start using the trails at lunch or after work to encourage a healthy lifestyle. The better off the forest will be, for there will be more voices to save it.
Can't do it alone.

Also, the forest should be used as a selling feature for kanata. What other place in ottawa has such a lush forest playground!

the housing boom is almost over (as government cuts come into play Mar 2012). With this will come enormous competition to sell homes.
Hence, SMH should be sold as a benefit to living in kanata.