Haldimand council still split over giant Nanticoke development

In a narrow vote, a divided Haldimand County council affirmed its willingness to consider building Haldimand’s biggest town in the shadow of the Stelco steelworks in Nanticoke.

But the onus is now on the developer to pitch the plan to the province.

Empire Communities came to council in February 2022 with a vision to put about 15,000 homes on 4,200 acres of industrial land surrounding Stelco’s Lake Erie Works.

The land — near the steelworks and an oil refinery — is inside a “provincially significant employment zone,” an area designated by the province for industrial development and declared unsuitable for housing.

That means the county had to apply for a “minister’s zoning order” (MZO) asking the province for permission to rezone the area to residential before Haldimand could formally review Empire’s proposal.

The previous council unanimously endorsed Empire’s request for an MZO and filed the paperwork with the housing ministry in March 2022.

A year later, following the election of Mayor Shelley Ann Bentley on a platform of opposing the Nanticoke development, councillors voted to confirm the earlier decision to seek an MZO.

The issue was before council again on Tuesday because the province changed the rules for applying for MZOs in April. Any files still open at that point, including the Nanticoke proposal, were closed.

Councillors had three options. They could direct county staff to reapply for the MZO, a process staff warned would take time away from other pressing priorities and development files, or cause the MZO application to languish until staff could get to it next year.

Alternatively, councillors could ask the province for a new MZO but make the request contingent on the developer satisfying the housing ministry’s new criteria at Empire’s expense, without Haldimand committing taxpayer dollars or staff time to help.

“Given the MZO request is developer-driven, this would make the most sense logistically and financially,” the staff report said.

Or councillors could decide to do nothing and have the province closing the original MZO application be the last word on the Nanticoke proposal.

In a 4-3 vote, councillors decided to let Empire take the lead on reapplying for the MZO, with the municipality’s endorsement.

Bentley and councillors Marie Trainer and John Metcalfe were opposed.

“The residents of Haldimand County do not want this type of development. Even if it’s 20 years out. Even if it’s 300 homes,” Bentley said.

“Let’s put residents where residents should be, and that’s in Caledonia,” Trainer added.

Council’s decision leaves Empire to gather all the information the ministry requires under the new application framework.

That includes details about how the land will be used and serviced, construction timelines, what permits and approvals would be needed, and why the ministry should grant the project a special exemption rather than having the builder go through the usual development application process.

The ministry also expects to see evidence of public consultation and engagement with Indigenous communities.

Empire did not respond to a request for comment for this story. County staff say the developers are on board with doing the legwork for another MZO application.

“Empire Communities has recently confirmed their continued interest in an MZO to allow its proposed development to proceed,” the staff report reads.

Mark LaForme, director of consultation with nearby Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, told councillors Empire had not yet consulted with MCFN, but he had a meeting scheduled with the developers later in the week.

‘More positives than negatives’

Before the vote on Tuesday, Haldimand resident Darline Kinnear spoke against what she termed “irresponsible development in an industrial area,” arguing to build homes in Nanticoke “next to Stelco and their blast furnaces” would gobble up farmland, worsen Haldimand’s traffic congestion, and further tax the county’s health-care and education systems.

“We don’t want to see a situation like Hamilton has, with heavy industry and rundown housing,” Cayuga resident Vivian Huctwith said during her deputation.

Councillors Dan Lawrence and Stewart Patterson — whose ward includes Nanticoke — bemoaned what they called public misconceptions about the project.

“There’s been a lot of innuendo, a lot of negative comments, even this afternoon,” said Patterson.

“I see a lot more positives than negatives (in the proposal).”

Building in Nanticoke would see natural gas infrastructure and capacity extended to the area, which Lawrence said would help attract future industry.

The developers have promised $100 million toward a new wastewater treatment plant in Nanticoke to eventually allow for aging facilities in Hagersville, Jarvis and Townsend to be phased out. Empire also pledged to donate 100 acres of waterfront land to the county for recreational development.

“There’s opportunity here,” Lawrence said. “The spinoffs are huge.”

Opponents of the proposal are “fear-mongering” about 40,000 people coming to Nanticoke tomorrow, Lawrence added.

“I don’t believe for a moment, if this were to go through, that there would be 1,000 homes built in that area within a decade,” he said.

As for Stelco’s public claim that ringing its Lake Erie steelworks with houses could prompt the exit of the county’s biggest employer, Lawrence scoffed.

“They’re not going to leave,” he said, arguing it made no business sense for Stelco, or Imperial Oil’s Nanticoke refinery, to abandon modernized plants with access to a rail line and an industrial port.

But the mayor disagreed.

“Two of our biggest employers don’t want this MZO to go through,” Bentley said, casting doubt on Empire’s promise of jobs for area residents on the light industrial land included in the development.

“Is Amazon coming? What does Amazon pay, minimum wage?” Bentley asked.

Residents wondered aloud why new housing could not go to Townsend, a town on the border of Norfolk County that was laid out and serviced decades ago in anticipation of a housing boom that never materialized.

Mike Evers, Haldimand’s general manager of community and development services, said the province owns the “overwhelming majority” of vacant land in Townsend and has decreed it “not available for development.”

The land is “locked down” to the point the province denied a request to free up a few acres so Townsend’s long-term care home could expand, Evers noted.

“Townsend is a no go. That’s a fact,” Lawrence said.

Independent Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Bobbi Ann Brady was elected on her opposition to Empire’s Nanticoke proposal, an opinion she says is widely shared in Haldimand.

“People tell me it’s too much, too fast (and) this is not a good idea for the community,” Brady told The Spectator.

“I’m confused as to why councillors continue to go down this road when they know that it’s really not what their constituents have told them they want.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator