By James Matthews (Local Journalism Initiative reporter)
The founder of a local environmental group believes the proponent of a Grass Lake condo development misrepresented support from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans during a Dysart council meeting.
Harburn Holdings has sought Dysart zoning bylaw amendments that will allow the application for an 88-unit condominium development on Peninsula Road on Grass Lake. The proponents are lobbying for amendments to Haliburton County’s Official Plan and zoning bylaw that would pave the way for lot severance and accommodate the construction.
Anthony Usher, a planning consultant representing Harburn Holdings, outlined the proponent’s development plans during a five-hour special meeting of town council Sept. 29.
It was the only issue on the agenda. In the end, councillors voted to kick the issue up the ladder to the county level. Now Haliburton County will decide if its Official Plan should be amended to allow the development.
Leora Berman is founder of The Land Between charity. Her group is a grassroots non-governmental organization that promotes environmental stewardship rooted in the understanding that a community’s well-being comes from the land, according to its website.
Berman said Usher inferred five times during the special council meeting and in written reports in support of the project that the federal department evaluated the area during an April site visit and deemed the project environmentally safe to fish habitat.
She said proponents of the condo build didn’t put the DFO feedback in its proper context.
“It was misleading for this community and for the council because DFO’s role was only to look at whether the fill placed in the wetland was on top of fish habitat or not,” Berman said. “It had nothing to do with the impact of the development on the fishery.
“I feel they deliberately inferred it had to do with the development rather than the fill placement.”
Stephen Haayen, a DFO fish habitat biologist, took part in the site visit. In emails to Berman, Haayen said anything relating to fishing arising from development in Ontario falls within the jurisdiction of the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources.
“I did not do a proactive review of a proposed development nor was there even a finalized plan to review at the time of my site visit!” Haayen wrote. “DFO does not typically get involved to any degree in planning processes, as we need a confirmed project to review, to evaluate potential impacts on fish habitat.
“I will not speak further on this planning process, but I can say that I gave neither a green light nor a red light to any future development on an area that is outside our jurisdiction.”
Usher said DFO’s April visit to the site was about fill that had been dumped there during a grocery store’s 2004 construction. And that’s all any references to DFO were about.
In fact, a town staff report to council for the Sept. 29 special meeting reads: “The applicant had also contacted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans about this filling, which their staff had visited the site and were advised they were satisfied with the work done with no further review required by DFO.”
It also states: “The Dysart et al Official Plan shows an area of critical fish habitat identified by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry along the shoreline east of the subject property.”
Usher said he wasn’t present during the April site visit with DFO representatives. His client, the property owner Paul Wilson, was there. Usher was relying on Wilson’s report afterwards of the site visit.
“I don’t know who Tony Usher is,” said Haayen. “I met with [Paul] Wilson, the owner. I didn’t meet with [Usher]. I didn’t speak with him.”
Harburn Holdings retained Michalski Neilsen Associates Ltd. to complete an environmental impact study/wetland site assessment (EIS/WSA). That study demonstrates that, with all the mitigation measures in place, there isn’t going to be any impact on the fishery or on water quality, he said.
“We have an EIS that addresses all the fishery and water quality issues and shoreline protection and making sure the shoreline buffers are forested,” Usher said. “That is intended to ensure there is no discernable adverse effects on the fish and the water.”
Berman said it was suggested during the special council meeting that DFO had evaluated the impacts of the condo development on the fishery.
“They left the impression that DFO had done some sort of evaluation of the impact,” she said. “Not just the placement of fill, but the impact of this (condo) development on this fishery.”
Haayen said in a telephone interview that what’s happened to date at the Grass Lake site doesn’t constitute an alteration or destruction of fish habitat.
“As part of the Triage Occurrences Team, I visited the site to determine if recent works that had occurred at the site were in compliance with the Fisheries Act,” he said. “Based on my observations, I concluded that no harmful alteration or destruction of fish habitat was evident at the site.”
Berman said the Grass Lake area is one of the most significant staging areas for walleye in Haliburton County.
“There’s only two walleye areas in Haliburton County, and that’s the biggest one,” she said.
And, as such, that area should be deemed an Environmental Protection Zone, of which Dysart has none, she said. Of the 50 or so Ontario municipalities Berman looked at, she said Dysart et al is the only municipality that doesn’t have the proper bylaws in place to protect such areas.
A member of the Haliburton Highlands Outdoor Association (HHOA) who didn’t want to be identified and is not a biologist spoke on background for this story said anything that may threaten walleye habitat is of concern.
The HHOA has worked to rehabilitate the walleye fishery in the Kashagawigamog waterway. The Drag River where the association has focused their efforts flows west through Head Lake and Grass Lake.
The walleye fishery has significantly declined over the years and it’s believed water levels in the Drag River has played a role in that decline.
“The HHOA cleaned the spawning bed and we’ve been monitoring the walleye,” he said.
Haliburton County recently adopted the shoreline preservation bylaw. It applies to lands 20 metres from the high-water mark of all lakes, rivers, streams, and ponds in the county. According to the county website, the bylaw also applies to “natural heritage features and areas, like significant wetlands, that play a role in water quality.”
But Berman said the county’s shoreline bylaw might not apply to wetlands as some people would not deem them to be shorelines.
“Environmental Protection Zones are typically wetlands because wetlands are flood-control,” Berman said. “They provide us with so many services, including fish habitat, species-at-risk habitat, flood control, water filtration, water supply.”
Usher said he doesn’t criticize anybody for being concerned or worried about the resources. But no other qualified expert has put forward an analysis that shows there will be an adverse effect on the fishery.
“I completely appreciate that other people may still be worried,” Usher said. “This is the most important resource there is in Haliburton. It’s the lakes. I have to rely on expert opinion and right now I only have one expert opinion.”
At least the lake’s importance is one thing on which both camps agree.
The development of 88 condos will leave a footprint that will yield irreversible damage, Berman said. The sand and salt used in winter road maintenance will kill walleye food sources despite forested buffers.
“We desperately need housing,” Berman said. “But not at the expense of something that cannot be undone.”