Developer attempt to transform green sanctuary in Welland headed to Ontario Land Tribunal
The fight to preserve a cherished greenspace continues in the City of Welland. Following broken promises, a community uproar and increased political and expert scrutiny, an application to develop a significant woodlot is headed to the Ontario Land Tribunal after the city’s elected officials rejected a recent proposal.
The community greenspace, known by locals as Aqueduct Park, has for decades seen repeated applications from developers pushing to develop the forested grove, with little regard for the generations of neighbours who have fought tirelessly to preserve it. The previous owners of the lands were assured of its preservation as a parkland so future generations could benefit from the natural space when it was sold to the city decades ago.
But that assurance was upended in 2019 when the City of Welland sold the land to a local developer who is determined to bulldoze the greenspace, destroying a substantial portion of the forest's edge and disrupting a nearby vernal pool in the process.
The application to develop the lands at 368 Aqueduct Street and 155 Gadsby Avenue has been marketed as a project key to achieving the City’s intensification targets and will help to increase the range of housing opportunities, while preserving environmental lands developers say currently have no protection — what they’ve been calling a “win-win” situation for everyone.
In October 2022, Lucchetta Builders submitted an application for an Official Plan amendment and zoning change to accommodate a higher density development plan for 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. Council hesitantly received the report for information in December, citing concerns around the sale of the lands, impacts to area residents, poor planning processes and discrepancies in the multiple Environmental Impact Statement reports that were conducted. The December report was referred back to staff to revisit directions provided by council.
Residents have repeatedly raised concerns with the proposal, including the scale of the development and the potential harm to existing environmental features; the broken promise to conserve the land; and the application process and perceived lack of information provided to the public.
According to the City’s 2006 Parks, Recreational, and Culture Plan, Aqueduct Park was labelled a priority area and the plan committed not only to protect it, but to enlarge the park in order to preserve the vernal pool system and forest. Despite this, 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 and City staff have not provided direct responses to questions, including a request to justify how the environmental significance of the lands has changed since 2004.
“We made a mistake, we should be held accountable for it,” Councillor Tony Dimarco, who co-represents the Aqueduct Park area, said to council at the December meeting.
After learning the City sold the lands to a local developer in 2019, residents have been fighting to preserve the greenspace, which contains a forest and vernal pool that houses species at risk.
The proposal was revisited again in June, but was referred back to staff, with councillors arguing it did not address any of the directions provided in December. The underlying question about how the application was able to proceed in the first place given that right from the onset there was a bylaw in place dictating that the lands would be owned by the City for environmental preservation.
“This should’ve never been declared surplus. I know for myself personally, we did not know what was behind all this, all the information and I think the majority of us around the table were not aware. There is a bylaw for this signed back a few decades ago [stating] this property was basically given to the City for parks purposes,” Dimarco explained in the June meeting. “This should’ve not taken place until that motion was rescinded. We have a procedure and it was not followed, plain and simple. Here we are now, a couple years in the works, and it's back again with a resubmission and it should not have happened in the first place.
“This needs to be denied once again. This land was for specific uses and specific uses only and what’s being proposed here was not one of them.”
As council battles with questions around the sale of the land and a historic promise to residents to preserve the forested oasis, the developers, frustrated with the inertia of the application, have filed an appeal to the Ontario Land Tribunal to accelerate the process.
“As more than 90 days or respectively 120 days have passed since our clients' applications were received by the City and City Council has failed to make a decision on the applications, our clients hereby appeal these applications to the Ontario Land Tribunal,” the appeal applications for the Official Plan and zoning change states.
“In addition to City Council's failure to make a decision on the applications, our client is appealing…as the applications constitute the contribution of an appropriate range and mix of residential units in the neighbourhood, optimize the use of the subject property while respecting the adjacent natural heritage features and contribute to those features.”
This is the latest move in the saga of these high-profile greenspace lands, which were originally sold in the 1990s to the City of Welland with the promise they would be preserved. Despite the deal brokered between the City and residents three decades ago, 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 was purchased from the City of Welland by Lucchetta Builders — a family run business intent on developing the greenspace, which contains a forest and vernal pool that houses species at risk. In 2004 the same developers 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.
David Alexander, who sat on council when the application first came forward in the early 2000s, said he’s disappointed in how things have unfolded.
“Preserving greenspace for future generations is important and so is development that makes sense… so there has to be a balance,” he told The Pointer. “To me, the whole process is flawed, and you get a development that is out of sync with the nature and character of the neighborhood.”
Alexander said the application and process that has gone along with it is not an example of “green” planning “as best practices would slow things down, look at all the decisions along the way, consider the character of the neighbourhood, especially long-term impacts.” The decision, he explained, rests on flawed practices, including how the City disposes of land and retains records.
“Getting the City to sell building lots does not seem competitive to me in this case, but it also does not look back far enough to remind itself of any original agreements. And so Council does not get the full picture of how we got here, staff don't have all the information, the developer gets frustrated, everyone is pointing fingers and hiding behind a few rules, and no one is willing to really fix the actual problem. It makes everyone look bad.”
He said he would like to see the OLT consider the original agreements in weighing their decision.
Alexander said the OLT should direct the City and developer to complete a land swap. That way the parkland and forest portion would be included in the City's parkland inventory as originally agreed and the developer would still get to build in a suitable location where intensification makes sense in keeping up with the housing demand.
The forest on the lot currently stretches well beyond the property boundaries. 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 loss of greenspace if the proposed development goes through.
“The original development proposal occupied a much larger area of the subject lands, and would have encroached into the buffers of the natural heritage area. The revised submission does increase the number of units on the property, but it decreases the amount of building footprint, thereby eliminating the encroachment of the development into the sensitive natural area. As such, the proposal meets the intent of these policies in the PPS,” the June staff report states.
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).
According to the June staff report, upon reviewing the most recent Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Technical Memo, prepared by 8 Trees Inc., “staff are satisfied that previous Regional comments and concerns have been adequately addressed.” The staff report highlighted that the development concept had been revised to limit the amount of woodland loss to approximately 25 percent of the total woodland within the area.
“Based on the characterization of the subject lands contained within the various reports, the wooded area has been confirmed to achieve Regional Significant Woodland designation criteria. As such, staff have reviewed the justification provided to ensure that the development will not result in a significant negative impact to the ecological or hydrological function of the woodland,” the June staff report states.
The staff report also noted that, in accordance with the Provincial Policy Statement, there is an area on the property that has been identified as having natural heritage features that require long-term protection. This area will be kept by the City for preservation and to be connected with Aqueduct Park.
In January, 8Trees prepared a technical memo to address concerns about the proposal raised by the Region of Niagara in December. The Region stated the memo was required to ensure the development being proposed has been adequately assessed from a natural heritage perspective. The Region noted the EIS reports did not include a comprehensive assessment of impacts, nor did it include any recommendations or mitigation measures, noting “staff require an updated report… to confirm the proposal will not have a significant negative impact on the Region’s core natural heritage system.”
The latest report from 8Trees stated that based on a previous review of the Region of Niagara Official Plan criteria, combined with the findings of the scoped 2021 EIS and the 2022 EIS addendum, the development would not create significant harm as “the woodland portion within the subject lands does not meet the definition of significant woodland or significant wildlife habitat under existing conditions.”
The most recent report concludes there are no significant or rare species within the subject lands. It states bats flying over the vernal pool area does not constitute habitat use, noting that flying and feeding areas are not specialized functions and are not restricted to this one area in the woods. The report adds the woodland is highly impacted by the ongoing dumping of garbage, soil, organic waste, and uncontrolled stormwater, which it notes is a “serious concern” because it has caused the formation of hazardous leaning trees from root rot damage.
It adds the woodland is also isolated by urbanization from other natural areas of similar type and is not part of any natural corridor system, stating “urban woodlands require proper management to sustain ecological functions, and this has not occurred here for some time.
“We recommend that the improved woodland within the subject lands be gifted to the city to provide the best opportunity for long-term protection and management. Since the improved woodland within the subject lands is continuous with the Aqueduct Park woods the EP designation would eventually be extended over the entire woodland. This would be the first time in our history that this woodland would receive development planning protection.”
The latest report follows several other reports prepared by 8Trees, which have been heavily criticized by councillors and residents for lacking in proper consultation, omitting significant information and failing to show critical impacts to the surrounding woodland and the wildlife that use it.
Residents have repeatedly raised concerns over the loss of trees that would result from the development. The latest staff report noted the revised woodland loss would be limited to approximately 25 percent of the total woodland area.
Following the first report prepared by 8Trees in 2021, LCA Environmental was subsequently 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. It revealed several field studies did not follow standard protocols and did not integrate the applicable policies or legislation. 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.
An addendum to the EIS report was prepared in January 2022 in response to the peer review commissioned by the residents, addressing concerns raised by LCA and offering additional recommendations to help mitigate the environmental impact to the area. The Pointer previously reported that 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.
In the 2022 report, 8Trees estimated 10 to 22 edge trees of various sizes would be removed. The impact of this loss would be minimal, the report noted. However, the latest environmental memo conducted in January notes 24 trees must be removed as they are within the building footprints. An additional 18 trees may need to be removed because of their close proximity to the building footprint and another six need further assessment. There are another 24 trees that are outside the footprint and may need to be removed if deemed hazardous, the memo noted. The City has no tree cutting bylaw in place, therefore “there are no regulations in place preventing the landowner from tree clearing and applying for a building permit within the privately owned woods.”
The battle is far from the “not in my backyard” advocacy often criticized as NIMBYism taken too far, but rather a feat to fight to preserve a treasured sanctuary in the heart of the Aqueduct neighbourhood, Gabrielle Parent-Doliner, who has resided in the area for over 40 years, explained. She is part of the second generation that has stood up to developers and the City to prevent the forest from being uprooted.
“It's just the scale and the impact on the forest that needs to be accounted for. [Residents] understand the need for housing, that's not it. It's the preservation of the very few remaining woodlots in Welland. They're all disappearing. it's completely out of control,” she told The Pointer.
The development has raised a lot of red flags, Parent-Doliner previously told The Pointer, and current council and City staff haven’t been given the information they need to make an informed decision.
“It doesn't feel democratic. These aren't elected people, and yet they are having so much power on the direction of how this is going. They don't understand how to work for a balance with development and protection of what's left of the ecosystems in the environment,” she explained.
“It just shakes you down to your core that this is how decisions are made, that this is the level of sloppiness.”
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