Why pro­tect­ing the es­carp­ment is so im­por­tant

It’s a pro­vin­cial trea­sure, part of a World Bio­sphere Re­serve

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - JOAN LIT­TLE Free­lance colum­nist Joan Lit­tle is a former Burlington alder­per­son and Hal­ton coun­cil­lor. Reach her at specjoan@co­geco.ca

In 1986, as a mem­ber of Hal­ton Re­gional coun­cil, I had the priv­i­lege of be­ing ap­pointed to the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment Com­mis­sion (NEC) by the prov­ince, as Hal­ton’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive. I was a com­mis­sioner un­til 1993, when I was ap­pointed chair un­til 1996.

Sub­se­quently, the Mike Har­ris Con­ser­va­tives were elected, and when the terms of five ap­pointed by the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment ex­pired in 1996, none were reap­pointed, al­though most were el­i­gi­ble. Such is pol­i­tics.

I reap­plied in 2004, was reap­pointed, and fin­ished in April, 2017. Terms are usu­ally not that long, but be­cause the es­carp­ment plan was be­ing re­viewed, it was con­sid­ered in­ad­vis­able to change mem­bers mid­stream dur­ing such a com­plex un­der­tak­ing.

Of the NEC’s 17 mem­bers, eight are “mu­nic­i­pal mem­bers,” nom­i­nated by coun­cils in the eight coun­ties and re­gions through which the es­carp­ment winds. Nine, in­clud­ing a chair, are “at large” — ci­ti­zens from any­where, al­though most live on or are very fa­mil­iar with the es­carp­ment.

There have been some su­perb ap­pointees. I par­tic­u­larly ad­mired as­tute ar­chi­tect Robert Bo­raks, so in tune with en­vi­ron­men­tal de­sign, and videog­ra­pher and pub­li­cist Don

To­day’s sit­u­a­tion is bad. Five of us left in April, and there were al­ready two va­can­cies.

Alexan­der’s fa­mil­iar­ity with the es­carp­ment’s north­ern reaches of Grey and Bruce coun­ties. Im­pres­sive Ce­cil Louis, a re­tired NEC plan­ner, is cred­ited as the ar­chi­tect of the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment Plan (NEP).

Lyn MacMil­lan, founder of C.O.N.E. (the Coali­tion on the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment) lob­bied the Bill Davis gov­ern­ment tire­lessly in the ’70s to get the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment Plan­ning and Devel­op­ment Act passed. In 2013 John Ri­ley, wrote the book “The Once and Fu­ture Great Lakes Coun­try, an Eco­log­i­cal His­tory.” He is a se­nior sci­ence ad­viser to the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy of Canada. Out­stand­ing in­di­vid­u­als all, they ded­i­cated un­told hours to pro­tect­ing the es­carp­ment.

Don Scott, founder of Cuesta Plan­ning in Owen Sound, was ap­pointed chair af­ter my short stint — the per­fect chair for the com­mis­sion, thought­ful with a dry wit and able to dif­fuse dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. He re­cently ad­mon­ished some mu­nic­i­pal mem­bers, dur­ing the co-or­di­nated re­view of the NEP, Green Belt, and Oak Ridges Mo­raine Plans, to take off their mu­nic­i­pal hats, and adopt a broader provincewide per­spec­tive to re­vis­ing the es­carp­ment plan.

The pur­pose of the NEP is “to main­tain the Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment and land in its vicin­ity sub­stan­tially as a con­tin­u­ous nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, and to en­sure only such devel­op­ment oc­curs as is com­pat­i­ble with that nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.”

The Har­ris gov­ern­ment, in ’96, di­rected the NEC to re­duce staff by a third, when our an­nual bud­get was just over $2 mil­lion! The com­mis­sion­ers whose terms had ended were not re­placed, and only nine re­mained for about a year — a bare quo­rum, with no chair. That po­si­tion was ro­tated.

Har­ris wanted to get rid of the NEC, but knew he would face strong pub­lic crit­i­cism. In­stead, sev­eral anti-NEC com­mis­sion­ers were ap­pointed, some of whom later be­came em­bar­rass­ments to the gov­ern­ment. For­tu­nately, the su­perb re­main­ing staff, al­though dev­as­tated, kept the pro­gram afloat.

The cab­i­net ap­point­ments sys­tem has al­ways worked in­ef­fi­ciently, no mat­ter who has been in power, but dur­ing the NDP years ap­point­ments were made on a more timely ba­sis. Al­ways, some would lapse, leav­ing va­can­cies, and one time the mu­nic­i­pal rep for Peel Re­gion and her suc­ces­sor both showed up be­cause of an er­ror.

To­day’s sit­u­a­tion is bad, too. Five of us left in April, and there were al­ready two va­can­cies.

Three more terms, in­clud­ing the chair’s, sub­se­quently lapsed, re­sult­ing in the July meet­ing’s can­cel­la­tion for lack of a quo­rum.

The com­mis­sion plan­ning staff is su­perb, and very pro­fes­sional. Cur­rent di­rec­tor David Ay­otte is the right man for to­day’s com­mis­sion, but his hands are tied un­til new ap­point­ments are made. Both the NEC and the Pro­vin­cial Ap­point­ments Sec­re­tar­iat web­sites still show none.

The Ni­a­gara Es­carp­ment was en­shrined in spe­cial leg­is­la­tion in the 70s, sup­ported by all three par­ties. You’d think to­day, with ur­ban pres­sures to in­ten­sify, it would be more im­por­tant than ever to ap­point good new peo­ple to con­tinue pro­tect­ing this pro­vin­cial trea­sure, part of a World Bio­sphere Re­serve. Just do it!

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