Gravel Pits and Planning Boards

The article below by Environment North vice president Karen Peterson was first published in the Chronicle Journal in May 2017.

To sign a petition to oppose rezoning lands adjacent to a Lake Residential and Fishery area:  Click here


Controversy has recently surfaced regarding an application to develop a gravel pit abutting an established lake residential area.  Opposition to the pit stems from its proximity to people, camps, year round residences, as well as the natural environment and the inland water system all of which have associated adverse and long term impacts. Environmental hazards relate to vulnerable surface and ground water, air quality, ecosystems and biodiversity. Health hazards stem from contaminated water, diesel fumes and aggregate dust which both affect children, the elderly, people with asthma, heart disease and diabetes.  Aggregate dust also contains silica, a known carcinogen. Safety hazards stem from increased truck traffic, damage to roads and private property.  Noise levels increase due to crushing rocks and truck traffic. In short, an overall deterioration of the quality of life, harm to the environment and increased societal costs for repair of roads, damage to property and health care.
The application is to re-zone the property to an Extraction Industrial Zone. Rather than assess the application for its merits within the structure of the current Official Plan, the local planning board is amending their Plan to include a “holding by-law” provision. Holding by-laws allow future uses for land while delaying development until certain conditions identified by the Board are met.  Municipalities cannot use holding by laws unless there are holding policies in its Official Plan.  The local planning board is simultaneously amending their Official Plan and the zoning by-laws to include this holding provision.
From a public perspective, holding by-laws are problematic. By allowing future uses, although tied to conditions, the process seems to be a pre-approval in principle that can side-swipe critical aspects of public decision making.  It’s not clear, for example, the role of public involvement which is intended to inform the public about projects and provide the time and a suitable venue for consultation so people who are directly affected can state their issues, concerns or approvals and their voices can be heard, considered and acted upon.  
In this situation, the holding by-law will be removed when certain conditions such as set-backs, tests and environmental studies are done. Any studies or tests, however, are to be conducted in-house by the applicant or the applicant can select a consultant to do the work.  Questions arise regarding who determines the scope of the work, whether the study is sufficient or whether specific conditional set-backs are adequate. When complete, uncertainty surrounds the evaluation process.  Will scientific criteria be used to assess the results or will a mere checklist be used to indicate that studies are done?  Who determines acceptable levels of risk to property, people or the environment?  How many traffic accidents, for example, will be acceptable or at what level of severity?
Local planning boards are voluntary and part-time with limited resources. Adding additional responsibilities through holding by-laws further stretches their capacity especially when the decision is associated with activities posing high social and environmental risks. Expert oversite is required to evaluate the studies and to determine whether they are satisfactory in terms of scope, accuracy and effective mitigation strategies. 
Downloading this level of responsibility by the Province to local boards without corresponding financial and human resource capacity opens the door to arbitrary decision making. The process becomes one of self-assessment and self-regulation by industry. Business interests are tied to the bottom line and accountability is to owners and shareholders, not social or environmental values. Government has a duty of care to the public interest. Sound, considered and responsible planning needs to occur before piece meal adjustments to Official Plans. Public scrutiny and expert oversight creates trust for an independent process and the duty of care required. 
For further information on this or similar issues go to the Environment North website where articles, research, and petitions are posted to educate and engage the public.