Maryhill pit latest example of a broken planning process

Whether you view Woolwich’s decision to strike a deal for a gravel pit near Maryhill as a sell-off or a pragmatic move, the decision underscores the province’s long-standing problems with aggregate mining.

Add in the undemocratic elements of development, exacerbated by the Ford administration, and you have a recipe for public discontent. (This is despite previous comments from the premier that municipalities, not the province, should have the right to decide on gravel pit applications.)

Of course, gravel pit debates at Woolwich are nothing new. There were a few exceptions – notably in West Montrose and Conestogo – but mining operations are generally sanctioned, if not by the community, then by unaccountable provincial courts.

The threat of such costly legal action has been a factor in previous decisions, as well as the latest Capital Paving application.

Woolwich Councilors, who had to make the decision, would decline Capital Paving’s offer to quarry gravel on a 230-acre site centered at 1195 Foerster Rd. south of Maryhill. As local representatives, they would be doing the will of most residents if they voted “no.” Additionally, gravel works bring little economic benefit to the community while also damaging roads as heavy trucks travel back and forth to the quarry site, while increasing traffic and resulting safety hazards.

In this case, it was the company that took the matter out of the hands of the local community by appealing to the Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT), arguing it had taken the community too long to make a decision.

By reaching an agreement, Woolwich took itself out of the game. Residents could proceed with the OLT hearing scheduled for later this year, but would be essentially on their own — the municipality, region and province will not come to their aid.

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With this mine application, the council could not make a first-hand decision. Now it has decided to unsubscribe. Of course, it never really had a say, other than voting “no” to quash the company’s lawsuit in court. In current circumstances, practicality trumped residents: appeals to the common good have historically fallen on deaf ears at the provincial level. The quasi-judicial tribunals have a track record of ignoring local decisions in favor of developers.

The province’s poor record of respecting local desires is compounded in the case of gravel pits, where the Aggregate Resources Act is effectively a bludgeon and the Department of Natural Resources is seen as the defender of operators, not Ontario residents.

Of course we need gravel, and it has to come from somewhere. Due to its geography, this section of the province is rich in aggregates, as evidenced by the numerous pits already in operation. If every application for a mining license were denied, we would have to find alternative sources for an important material. At least that’s how the argument goes, although research shows we have decades and decades’ worth of gravel in already licensed pits.

Currently, provincial politics favor developers and place far too much power in the hands of the OLT. Opponents like Gravel Watch Ontario say the same is true of the overall policy. They also deplore the MNR’s actions in enforcing the weak rules that are in place. Addressing these deficiencies would go a long way in reducing disputes over gravel pit applications.

High on the list of priorities is the adoption of forfeiture clauses for gravel licenses: tough and unsolvable deadlines for mine closures. As it stands today, operators can work at an “active” site for years, a popular tactic to avoid the remediation now required of mine owners. Such a move would reassure nearby residents that the health and safety risks would only exist for a limited time, an important step.

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As it stands, even where communities have attempted to enforce sunset clauses, the MNR has simply stepped in and overturned them. Local residents only have to grumble … and live with the consequences.


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