The Vrancor Group managed to pave over a conservation area near the Holiday Inn Express in Glendale because town staff are simply too busy to inspect every project regularly, Lord Mayor Betty Disero says.
The town also has to trust that developers and builders will not break the rules, she said.
“Staff aren’t in a position to inspect everything constantly and make sure people are (following town directives),” Disero said in an interview Monday.
She said the illegal construction at 524 York Rd. occurred between inspections by town officials.
Coun. Sandra O’Connor shared the mayor's view.
“Staff is very busy and it’s very hard to follow up on every single development all of the time,” O’Connor said.
Coun. Allan Bisback looked for accountability during a public meeting on Sept. 13, asking town planner Rick Wilson who was responsible for approving the as-built plan.
Wilson said the project had not been approved after discovery of the illegal construction.
“How did this get overlooked? That still needs to be discussed,” Bisback said in an interview late September.
He said he expects the issue to return to council once a staff report on the situation is finished.
Sometime after 2017, Vrancor built a parking lot and connecting road on top of protected environmental land north of York Road.
“It could happen any number of ways,” Disero said.
“People don’t follow their site plan or they get the town to sign off and then do unapproved additions.”
While the inability of staff to inspect every development daily and the trust placed in the developer can lead to this kind of situation, the problem was compounded by the site's location and the fact that the town traditionally works “on a complaint basis,” Disero said.
Bisback added: “You would never know unless you were going to stay at one of those hotels. I don’t think a lot of residents know the conservation overlap on approved lands.”
Disero was unsure who noticed the problem first and chief administrative officer Marnie Cluckie was unable to comment on the situation as of Tuesday.
“I’m not really 100 per cent sure whether there was a complaint brought in about this or whether the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority noticed it and reported it,” Disero said.
She said the town was alerted to the illegal paving a while ago but couldn’t say exactly when.
“It’s not that (staff) just found out last week. It would have been something that they’ve been trying to work towards compliance — which means the zoning change and pre-consultation meetings and applications,” Disero said.
Now that the illegal construction has been identified, Disero said there are only two options for council to take: either rezone the area so the road is no longer in a conservation area or order the developer to tear up the road and replant the land.
The latter option has a precedent, she said.
“That’s happened before in Niagara-on-the-Lake, although it was in respect to woodlots,” Disero said.
“There have been a couple of farmers that have actually had to reforest areas at the requirement of the conservation authority,” she said.
But Disero was frank in saying she was unsure what recommendation the conservation authority would make in this instance and that the agency's determination could affect council's final decision.
“In some occasions they are very lax and in some occasions they are very strict.”
The region is now looking after the conservation land in question and reviewing an ecological impact study supplied by the developer.
Either way, some councillors were not shy in expressing their dissaproval of the developer's actions.
“It is disappointing that we’re at this juncture,” Bisback said.
“You grant approval to build a development and then you find out later that it wasn’t built correctly.”
Coun. Norm Arsenault did not hold back during the September public meeting.
“It just makes me crazy when I see developers taking over conservation areas like this without asking permission,” Arsenault said.
O’Connor sought assurance from Wilson that the work had in fact been done illegally. “I was quite surprised about that,” she said.
“That’s why I had to reinforce it and say, ‘Are you saying that they paved (the conservation lands) illegally?’”
Wilson repeatedly affirmed that the work had been done without the town's approval.
O’Connor took issue with the environmental impact study by Myler Ecological Consulting.
“(Myler) was saying because of the emerald ash borer and the demise of the ash trees the lot didn’t have the same value to the environment,” she said.
That narrow view didn’t consider the long-term growth potential of the area, she said.
“In the long run, we won’t just have buckthorn brush there. We will have tall oak trees. It takes time. That woodlot does have value, but that’s just my view," she said.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report