Local group appeals approval of 75 estates in Belfountain fearing well water will be tainted and drained; Town stands behind residents
Belfountain truly is the place where everybody knows your name. The quaint hamlet on the west side of Caledon, approximately 70 kilometres northwest of Toronto, is the postcard image of a small town. From any of the community’s less than 100 homes, it is a five minute walk up the road, past the country store, to the Higher Ground Cafe. The coffee shop serves as a central hub and cultural centre for the town, allowing old friends to meet for coffee and putting on special concerts for entertainment. Surrounding the hamlet is the Belfountain Conservation Area and Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, protected under the designation of the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Residents were once convinced that this designation would protect the natural heritage of the community. But they are now fighting to preserve their quaint, rural neighbourhood as the crush of urbanization presses in.
Belfountain residents gathered earlier this week to raise concerns about the Manors of Belfountain development proposal.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The Belfountain Community Organization (BCO) filed an appeal Wednesday to the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC) of its decision to approve a development permit for the Manors of Belfountain (MOB), a project that would see the construction of 75 rural estates and a park bordered by 53 acres of open space. The BCO defines itself as a “group of residents committed to preserving the rural, cultural and environmental integrity of the hamlet of Belfountain”. The appeal is the latest development in a 30-year fight that has seen residents of the hamlet band together to protect not only their blissful way of life, but the natural heritage that surrounds them, with protecting the area’s water quality being a top priority.
The Manors project has existed as a concept since the 1980’s, but the path toward eventual shovels in the ground has been a shifting saga of owners with the property being passed around to various developers. A draft plan of subdivision was originally filed by Enterac (the original owners of the land) in 1988. The plan, which detailed the development of 73 residential lots, was refused by the NEC. The developer appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (now the Ontario Land Tribunal) but in 1990 the OMB sided with the NEC in denying the application. However, it did stipulate the lands had “potential for residential development”, but not at the scale proposed.
Following the 1990 decision, Enterac took another stab at developing the property. The company filed a new draft plan of subdivision, this time for 48 residential lots surrounded by an open space area. Revisions were made to the draft plan in 1997 and 1998, but the lands were sold before any final decision could be made on the proposal.
The lands are currently owned by the Manors of Belfountain Corporation. An address listed within planning documents connects the company to Woodbridge-based developer Medi-Terra Properties. In 2018, Glen Schnarr and Associates, working as consultant for the new owners, filed another draft plan of subdivision to the Town of Caledon and subsequently the NEC. When the Town and NEC did not reach conclusions on the new proposal within 180 days—a timeframe established under the Planning Act—the developer appealed to the Ontario Land Tribunal for a decision. The file has remained dormant at the OLT.
According to the Niagara Escarpment Act, an NEC permit must be issued before any municipal permits can be issued or OLT decision rendered.
Despite the application being in the hands of the OLT, which following changes made to the appeal process by the PC government under Premier Doug Ford, more often than not rules in favour of the developer, the BCO held out hope that the application would be rejected by the NEC. But on July 26, residents were shocked when the NEC approved the development permit, citing Belfountain as a Minor Urban Centre, making it suitable for growth under the Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act.
“We are extremely concerned about 77 (sic) houses and the impact to the water of the Belfountain community, the wetlands and all of the tributaries that flow from that piece of land,” Judy Mabee of the BCO said to a room full of concerned residents on Tuesday.
Regardless of the development’s potential to double the population of the modest hamlet, the main concern for the residents of Belfountain is the impacts on their water quality and quantity, given that each home is on its own well that draws directly from the water table. The same would be true for the proposed estates.
There are also concerns about impacts on the Credit River, which has come under close scrutiny as various projects in adjacent towns that border it threaten its natural habitats and water security. In Erin, the development of the wastewater treatment facility has come under fire for the potential to drastically warm the cold water habitat which could impact the Brook Trout population that relies on the river. Moreover, a proposed 800-acre mega blasting quarry in Cataract will most certainly affect the area's water quality and hydrology as it will require aggregate extraction from below the water table.
A hydrogeologist working with the BCO stated at the Tuesday meeting that the construction of the estates threatens to cause further contamination, in particular raising the concentration of nitrates in the water. In contrast, the hydrological investigation undertaken by Cole Engineering Group for the developer stated the major contributor to existing nitrate concentrations are agricultural activities on and off site and the development could actually decrease nitrate concentrations due to the ceasing of agricultural operations on the lands planned for the new estates.
An environmental impact study determined there are 11 species at risk in the area, including the endangered Jefferson salamander.
A Monarch butterfly is seen drinking nectar from a dandelion on the Manors of Belfountain lands set to be developed.
But the most damning difference between the hydrogeological study presented by the developer and that undertaken by the BCO are the conclusions reached about how much degvelopment the watershed can support.
“The question is who compensates Belfountain and its water supply when the groundwater becomes so high in nitrates it's poisonous, or there is an inadequate supply because 75 large houses are going crazy to water lawns and fill pools,” former Caledon regional councillor Ian Sinclair said.
Despite the draft subdivision planning for 75 residences, the study undertaken in consultation with the BCO determined that the watershed can only support a maximum of 38 dwellings, half of what is proposed. The fear amongst residents in the hamlet is how they will continue to ensure they have access to water when these 75 mansions overuse, causing wells to run dry. Who will be responsible for ensuring these residents have continued access to suitable drinking water?
“Two years from now. The Region's gone. Who is going to pick up the tab? The 80,000 people in the Town of Caledon if this goes south. It is absolutely critical for future budgetary needs in the town, and the public health of people in and around Belfountain,” Sinclair continued.
These concerns form the core of the appeal filed to the NEC on Wednesday. Residents of Belfountain recognize the desire for growth and they do not necessarily oppose it. Under Bill 23, the Town of Caledon has been allocated a target of building 13,000 new homes by 2031 and the Town’s Official Plan estimates that the population of all of its hamlets will increase to over 1,300 people. But, just because growth is inevitable does not mean it can go unchecked, the group argues. The appeal pleads for the decision to be reconsidered and the maximum number of dwellings be locked at 38.
The BCO is not alone in its fight. At the community meeting, which was attended by both Caledon Mayor Annette Groves and Regional Councillor for Wards 1, 2 and 3 Christina Early (Ward 1 Area Councillor Lynn Kiernan was on vacation at the time), Groves stated that the Town was standing behind the BCO in the fight against the NEC decision.
“It's important to note that nothing has been brought before Council yet, staff will be bringing this to council in a confidential report in September,” Groves said to the approximately 100 community members at the meeting Tuesday, stating that anyone from the community could register to delegate at the meeting when council reconvenes after the summer. The staff report will be handled in closed session due to the legal matters surrounding the OLT appeal.
In an effort to buy time, Groves said the Town would be filing a protective appeal which “ensure(s) that council has the opportunity to consider its position on the development permit, as well as the draft plan of subdivision already under appeal as a whole and to receive so that council can also receive advice from planning and legal staff on the merits of the appeal and the proposed development.”
While the BCO has filed its appeal to the NEC and the Town will file its own in September, the decision at the OLT is still pending a hearing date.
“There's a chess game going on,” Groves said. “And we've got to wait for that September meeting. So tomorrow's phase one, we got to get a hold on this whole appeal issue. and then we've got to start working on the process. And water is going to become the largest issue.”
“The BCO board and myself have been pushing, preaching, beating, and appeals should be done. It sounds like that's in order,” Sinclair said. “And the function of the appeals, both BCO’s and the Town’s will be to keep our steel toe boot in the door, because a whole lot of negotiation starts happening and decisions get made behind closed doors. You want to be at the table.”
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