Broken promises: A family sold cherished greenspace to the City of Welland for preservation; it’s now been sold for development
A small neighbourhood in the City of Welland is once again fighting to save a community greenspace that for decades has seen repeated applications from developers seeking to bulldoze the native forest to make way for houses.
Aqueduct Park has been used by generations of neighbours in the single-family homes that surround it, who have fought numerous attempts to develop the woodland and wetland complex that was sold to the City decades ago. The previous owners of the forested grove were assured of its preservation as a parkland so future generations could benefit from the cherished natural space. The City committed to prevent any attempts to develop the land.
This assurance was upended in 2019 when the City of Welland sold the land. Now, an active proposal could see a three-storey apartment building erected on the site, destroying a substantial portion of the forest's edge and disrupting a nearby vernal pool (seasonal ponds that are relied upon by a number of species for mating or to lay their eggs, including endangered species like the Jefferson salamander).
“The proposed development footprint including direct and indirect effects caused by disturbing, trenching, excavating, and draining the area within the woodland is expected to result in almost 100 percent loss of trees within site and loss of the seasonal pool habitat,” a report to the City regarding the proposed development warned. It has been largely ignored by Welland’s council members, who have also ignored residents demanding explanations. “This loss would directly impact existing ecological functions including maternity roosting habitat for Species at Risk bats and potential recovery area for White Wood Aster,” the report added.
The battle is far from the “not in my backyard” advocacy often criticized as NIMBYism taken too far. Residents of the Aqueduct neighbourhood are fighting to preserve a treasured oasis that was meant for them, and anyone else who appreciates the joy of being in nature.
“The neighbourhood is fighting to protect this,” Gabrielle Parent-Doliner, a resident of the area for over 40 years, says. “It's been well over 100 years of the neighbourhood not only trying to protect what's there, but to grow it.
“It's been diminished but it is really something special and rare that's left in the city.”
In 2004 a developer, Lucchetta Builders, attempted to carve the land into eight residential lots with a cul-de-sac in the middle. The proposal was turned down by councillors at the time who deemed the lands to be environmentally significant.
Eighteen years later, residents are fighting the same battle.
Aqueduct Park has faced repeated attempts from developers to expand the surrounding subdivision. Community members have successfully pushed off such applications. A current proposal threatens the southern portion of the woodland (bottom image).
In 2020 Lucchetta Builders submitted an application to deforest the land and develop an eight-storey condominium with access from 368 Aqueduct Street, which would include a mix of townhomes and semi-detached dwellings. That proposal has since been updated and scaled back to a three-storey condominium with a total of 24 residential units fronting onto Aqueduct Street and the clearing of a lot for a single-family home on Gadsby Avenue.
“What changed?” Parent-Doliner asks. “Why are they now working with the City, and it's the exact same plan that was rejected.”
In October, Lucchetta Builders submitted an application for an Official Plan amendment and zoning bylaw amendment to accommodate a higher density development plan for the two locations.
Although the overall development footprint has been scaled back from previous proposals to 21 percent of the lot area (according to the planning and justification report) residents remain concerned about the implications for the surrounding area and the loss of greenspace if the proposed development is approved.
Parent-Doliner is part of the second generation that has stood up to developers and the City to prevent the forest from being razed.
The woodland was recently cut in half following housing developments north of Hilda Street, which runs perpendicular between Aqueduct and Gadbsy. Parent-Doliner says the neighbourhood has already felt the repercussions of that loss.
Residents can not understand the motives of City staff and council, who they believe are bent on development at any cost, with little regard for the value of the community’s local ecosystems. Most frustrating, they say, is despite previous efforts to save the forest from development due to its environmental significance, the City now has no qualms about changing course, even though nothing about the significance of the greenspace has changed.
Lucchetta Builders has been pining over the properties since 2004 when the first development proposal came forward. Neighbours successfully fought the application to destroy a different section of the forest and at the time the City assured local residents they would be informed ahead of any change in the status of the city-owned land.
“The first time they were rejected it was because the City, the council, recognized the value of the forest,” Parent-Doliner explains. “It was strictly to protect the forest and the pond; they recognized its value.”
However, in 2017, Aqueduct Park was declared surplus— meaning the City could sell it without consulting the local neighbourhood association, area residents or the numerous community members who had offered to purchase the land for conservation purposes.
In 2019, a portion of the land, which contains a forest and vernal pool that houses species at risk, was purchased from the City of Welland by… Lucchetta Builders. Residents first caught wind of the development proposal when a notice sign was placed on the open lot.
Residents have raised concern over the number of trees that will be removed, the sale of the land despite a promise to conserve it, possible fencing, waste collection and impacts of traffic on Aqueduct Street.
The forest on the lot currently stretches well beyond the property boundaries, and into the current Aqueduct Park, but those lands would be diminished should the application be approved, as any development would fragment the greenspace, degrade the natural area and create increased pollution and noise.
Parent-Doliner's parents tried to buy the property in the ‘90s. A past mayor told them there was no need as the City wanted to keep the forest as a park, including the lot that was sold in 2019.
The longtime resident says community members have sent the City documentation of commitments by past councils. Residents, she says, feel powerless as pleas to the City have been ignored.
When contacted by The Pointer, City staff did not provide direct responses to questions, including a request to justify how the environmental significance of the lands has changed since 2004, and how the land was declared surplus without consultation.
Speaking for herself, her family and the neighbourhood park association, Parent-Doliner says the community’s main concern is the protection of the forest.
“It's been devastating locally to see this around the city, the loss of farmland and forests.
“We're losing all this stuff, and it doesn't seem to be managed by people who should have control over the environment because there seems to be absolutely no consideration, no value given.”
Susan Sommerville, whose family previously owned a portion of the property proposed to be developed, knows firsthand the significance of the area. Growing up with the greenspace in her backyard, she often explored the wondrous forest.
“Come spring, there were all these tadpoles that were growing in there and we would watch them develop into frogs and we could hear them from our home,” she says, reminiscing about her childhood.
“We were just so close to nature and yet we were in the midst of the city, but we still had the park-like feeling around us,” she recalls. “And being a child, it was magical. It was just magical for us.”
In 1990 her family sold the land in trust for preservation so future generations could enjoy what so many in the past had experienced. The City committed to preserve the forest and consult with the community before making any decisions about the greenspace in the future.
Her father first approached the City of Welland to see if it would be interested in purchasing the property, because he heard there was interest in expanding Aqueduct Park for residents. After his death, Sommerville’s mother sold the property to the City with the understanding it would be protected as environmentally significant land.
When asked about its unwillingness to honour the commitment, the City declined to comment.
“The lands were declared surplus and sold as per decision by City Council,” Taylor Meadows, a development planner with the City, said in a brief response when asked about the sale of the portion of the property for development. He did not explain what process was used to declare the land surplus, how such a decision was made, the criteria considered or why impacted residents were not consulted ahead of the decision.
Sommerville says her family felt the City would protect the greenspace, after providing assurances it would be preserved as parkland. That’s why they sold it, she says.
The City, she says, offered her family 45 percent of market value.
“So here's a woman who's a widow, and she's collecting a pension, and she accepts below market value for her property so that it could be available to the neighbourhood and the community as parkland,” Sommerville explains.
Almost at a loss for words, she says it was “very disappointing” to hear the magical piece of nature once owned by her family is now slated for development.
“We were devastated because we wanted to protect the trees and we accepted below market value because the City was going to protect the trees,” she says. “We were absolutely guaranteed that the property would never be sold for development, it would never be sold.”
She says the development has raised a lot of red flags, and current council and City staff haven’t been given the information they need to make an informed decision, citing a lack of awareness that the City bought it for park purposes or the resistance from the neighbourhood in 2004.
“To them, it was just a piece of property that the City didn't need anymore,” she says.
The City’s 2006 Parks, Recreational, and Culture Plan prioritized Aqueduct Park and committed not only to protect the area, but to enlarge the park in order to preserve the vernal pool system and the forest. However, the City’s updated official plan and zoning bylaw currently does not recognize the woodland as a natural area for environmental protection or conservation.
It’s unclear what changed.
In 2020, a petition was signed by over 100 people in the immediate neighbourhood to ask the City to protect the lands from development.
“This isn't like 100 acres,” Parent-Doliner says. “We're fighting over a tiny little patch of woods here.”
Another concern for Parent-Doliner is the process the development has gone through: from the land purchase to the private consultant’s studies and the lack of public consultation with neighbourhood residents.
“There's lost trust,” she says. “There's a lot of lost respect, and I think people are also just really scared. Like, what can we do here? There's no tree bylaw. There's nothing we can do. That's a really horrible feeling.”
In preparation for the development, a number of environmental studies have been conducted, commissioned by the City and by residents demanding further information, believing the City’s consultant reports missed several key elements.
The developer commissioned a scoped Environmental Impact Study (EIS), by 8Trees Incorporated, in February 2021. Residents have been critical of the report, stating it omitted significant information and failed to show critical impacts to the surrounding woodland and the wildlife that use it.
“There was a lot of erroneous things in it,” Parent-Doliner says. “We live there, we can see where the pond is, we can see the animals and a lot of that was mis-reported or under-reported or not reported.”
The 2021 report identified habitat use by Species at Risk (SAR) bats, specifically the Little Brown Bat—classified as endangered—during the maternity roosting season in two locations: over the seasonal pool habitat located within the subject lands and in a cluster of large oak trees within Aqueduct Park. White Wood Aster, a threatened plant species, was also confirmed within the park in 2018 and was thought to be present along the northern boundary of the lands proposed for development.
The scoped EIS report noted the White Wood Aster’s presence was not confirmed directly within the proposed development and 8Trees recommended an environmental conservation designation for the development proposal to permit some development, while protecting the seasonal pool functions and associated large trees to maintain habitat for the species at risk that were identified.
Trees, marked on the map above, would need to be removed should the development proposal be approved. This has the potential to impact a number of wildlife species, including endangered bats which have been spotted in the area.
The report also recommended an environmental protection designation for the north half of the remaining woodland to protect the White Wood Aster population and species at risk. The addition of a public trail was also recommended to protect the threatened Aster species from being trampled.
The original EIS report estimated 30 large trees would be removed out of 102 remaining on the land. The City of Welland does not have a tree protection bylaw or construction mitigation guidelines to protect existing trees. Since the woodland community is comprised of about 60 percent of the subject lands, protecting every tree would significantly affect the viability of the development project, the report noted.
As mentioned earlier, the report explained that the “proposed development footprint including direct and indirect effects caused by disturbing, trenching, excavating, and draining the area within the woodland is expected to result in almost 100 percent loss of trees within site and loss of the seasonal pool habitat.” The ecosystem would be destroyed and species at risk that currently rely on it will be further threatened.
Following the release of the EIS report, LCA Environmental was retained by residents to complete a peer review of the report’s findings. While LCA agreed with the environmentally sensitive species that were identified, it alleged 8Trees didn’t complete a proper study, noting several discrepancies and missing information in the report.
“Specifically, several field studies did not follow the accepted standard protocols, and the assessment of significance and impacts do not integrate the applicable policies or legislation,” the review stated. “The report did not satisfy all the requirements of the EIS guidelines including the provision of a detailed constraints map, an assessment of impacts expected from the final development plan, or a summary of policy compliance.”
The review found that an Environmental Constraints report required by the Region of Niagara was deemed insufficient due to a lack of field studies, which LCA noted was not included in the 2021 scoped EIS and it was unknown what the findings and recommendation of that report were.
The review also found that while discussion of the policy and legislative framework was included in the 2021 EIS report, there was minimal discussion of their application or the implications these policies would have on development potential.
According to the review, important documents like the Parks, Recreation and Culture plan, which provides information and strategic objectives for Aqueduct Park, were also not considered as part of the 2021 EIS.
The peer review recognized 8Trees recommendations to designate the northern part of the woodland for environmental protection and environmental conservation for the remainder of the woodland on the subject property. However, it noted the designation of environmental conservation lands in the southern part of the woodland is not consistent with the findings of the study which states the seasonal pool on the subject property provides important habitat for species at risk bats.
Citing regional and municipal policies, the area identified as a seasonal pool should have also received an environmental protection designation as a species at risk habitat, it stated.
“The descriptions detailed in the executive summary are contradictory to the report conclusions which state that the proposed development meets most of the EIS recommendations with no mention of the loss of significant habitat or non-compliance with local, regional, provincial and federal policies,” the review noted.
Images of the vernal pool taken by consultant 8Trees as part of its study.
In response to the peer review commissioned by the residents, an addendum to the EIS report was prepared in January 2022 addressing concerns raised by LCA and offering additional recommendations to help mitigate the environmental impact to the area.
The 2022 report dismissed the missing information that was highlighted in the peer review, claiming that timing, misunderstandings and the inability to access City reports resulted in the omission of key information.
The updated report found no species at risk occupying or using habitat features within the subject lands, but did confirm that the air space above the seasonal pool area was used by the endangered bats during the maternity roosting season. It also confirmed at risk bats roosting within the tall Aqueduct Park oak trees adjacent to the proposed lands.
It observed that while the White Wood Aster plant was identified in 2018 near the northern portion of the woodland, it was not found in the vicinity of the proposed lands during any recent surveys. It instead verified the presence of Schreiber’s Aster within the ground flora of the park – a species considered to be rare but not regulated under the Endangered Species Act.
As the City has no tree cutting bylaw in place and the Niagara Region Tree bylaw does not apply due to the small woodland size “there are no regulations in place preventing the landowner from tree clearing and applying for a building permit within the privately owned woods,” except for a restriction on timing of tree removal imposed by the province and the Migratory Birds Convention Act which protects migratory bird habitat during the breeding season.
In the new report, 8Trees estimates 10 to 22 edge trees of various sizes would be removed. The impact of this loss would be minimal, the report noted, and “can be mitigated by enhancing the quality of the remaining woodland feature and planting younger native tree species within the woodland edge habitat and around the development perimeter.”
It’s a dramatic departure from the original finding that significant tree loss would result from the development footprint.
The updated report recommended a woodland restoration and stewardship project to reduce the harmful effects of development. To promote sustainability of the remaining woodland, 8Trees also recommended gifting the undeveloped portion of the woods to the City with the ongoing management by the parks department.
The report offered a series of woodland restoration opportunities to restore as much of the entire woodland feature as possible. This includes restoring the hydroperiod of the seasonal pool, removing garbage, dumping of organic waste, removing mowed areas – which were once woodlands – reestablishing younger trees and a natural woodland ground flora north of the Aqueduct Park.
8Trees supported the development application, stating in the City’s updated planning and justification report: “The development revisions make good use of non-sensitive lands for housing and helps meet the City’s goals for urban intensification while still maintaining natural amenities into the future.”
As a longtime resident who grew up in the area, Parent-Doliner says it’s devastating to see the future of the forest once again in the hands of a developer.
She says she’s now going through the same fight she watched her parents and neighbours go through over 15 years ago when the first proposal was brought forward.
“That's the relationship with this forest, it's like another member of the public,” she says. “We care about it so much and to see it again, just sort of tossed around…and we've seen so much loss…The loss the city as seen in these urban forests has been hard and seeing more and more irresponsible actions that don't have to be done this way, that's just as hard as seeing the forest threatened like this, again.”
The application for the development is slated to be brought forward during a public meeting on December 6 and it will be up to council to determine the future of these lands.
“Our philosophy is do no harm,” Sommerville says. “This property is going to be here after we're long gone, and we don't want to do something that will have a negative impact.”
“This is irreversible,” Parent-Doliner adds. “Once it's done, you can't replant this.”
Correction: The story originally twice stated the name of the development company is Lucchetta Homes. This was incorrect, the company is called Lucchetta Builders.
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