Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Blanding's Turtle Will Have Little Chance for Survival as North Bay Sets its Sights on Becoming Ontario's Least Friendly City to the Natural Environment


It looks like opposition to a new casino in North Bay is starting to grow.  But it might be too little, too late, as North Bay Council has now twice-voted on their support for a new gaming facility on Pinewood Drive in the City's south end.

What's in the news today, however, is that the site selected by the City might be one that is already home to a unique Ontario resident - the Blanding's turtle.  Area residents are now raising the presence of Blanding's turtle habitat as a reason for the City of North Bay to look around for a different location for a casino.

And that's a potentially troubling development for Gateway Casinos. As we here in Sudbury know, Gateway is in a rush to move forward with casino projects it has on the go in cities throughout the "northern bundle" that it was the successful bidder on.  Delays to casino development could potentially cost Gateway big-time - and already we here in Sudbury have heard from at least one municipal Councillor that Gateway could abandon a site that the City has selected for a casino on the Kingsway as part of a larger "Kingsway Entertainment District" if appeals filed by the public to the casino use are not resolved by the Local Planning and Appeal Tribunal in a timely manner (full disclosure: I am one of the appellants to a decision regarding a neighbouring land use in the so-called "Kingsway Entertainment District" - my appeal relates to a zoning amendment to permit a new arena on lands to be owned by the City, adjacent to where Gateway Casinos plans to build.  Gateway Casinos is a party to my appeal as well as to appeals related to its development approvals. All are currently in front of the LPAT for a decision).

The presence of Blanding's turtle on the North Bay site could potentially hold up development for years - if it's true. And I add this point about truth knowing almost nothing about the issue, beyond what's been reported in the media today (see: "Could this turtle derail North Bay's casino plans?" Jeff Turl, sudbury dot com, January 15, 2019, and "Save the Turtle, Stop the Casino, North Bay group says," the Sudbury Star, January 14, 2019). 

Casino Site Already Zoned

Certainly, the City of North Bay's planning staff report for the rezoning of these lands in 2016 did not identify the presence of Blanding's turtle on the site - or any other environmental issues, for that matter (see: "Inter Office Memo, Planning Services," City of North Bay, October 20, 2016).  That planning report characterizes the site as being a greenfield within an existing industrial area, on the fringe of the City's urban settlement area (sound familiar to anyone in Greater Sudbury?).  In North Bay's case, however, the City interpreted the policies of its official plan that only a zoning amendment to permit a casino was needed, as the General Industrial OP policies permitted limited commercial uses.  Not sure that I would agree that a 'casino' in Ontario (run by a monopoly) is a commercial enterprise - but I sure wouldn't know what else to call it.

Anyway, if Blanding's turtle were identified on the site at that time, I would have expected that the City's staff report would have identified their presence - along with the potential need to obtain 'Overall Benefit Permits' from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).  Hence I have to take what I'm reading in the newspapers today with a huge grain of salt. 

The papers, though, appear to be reproducing some sort of press release from an organization called "Save the Turtles, Stop the Casino".  It would have been nice had the media contacted the City or the MNRF for comment on the presence of Blanding's Turtles on the site - even if it were to just to get a comment about whether anyone has ever raised this as an issue in the past.  But here we are in 2019, and I understand that local media have few resources to make these sorts of efforts.  So I'm left wondering whether this issue is actually a real issue - or a last-ditch effort for citizens to poke a stick through the spokes of the wheels that are turning for Gateway to now start building on this site.

Turtles as 'the Pigs'

But if Blanding's turtles really are there, the anti-casino forces might have hit the jackpot.  Here's the scoop: even though Ontario's legislation suggests otherwise, not all threatened and endangered species are created equal. To paraphrase George Orwell in a different context (because I've wanted to for some time now and haven't had the opportunity), all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than other.

If Ontario's Species at Risk guidance documents were Orwell's "Animal Farm" than clearly Blanding's Turtles would be the new pigs. We're not talking about some old Eastern Whippoorwill here. If there is Blanding's Turtle habitat on the site, you can forget about a casino going there quickly - unless the site is large enough to accommodate the facility and parking without negatively impacting the habitat.  

I write "quickly" because there are remedies. Under Regulations to the Species at Risk Act, you can destroy endangered species habitat - you just need the government's permission to do so. And the government pretty much always gives it. We know this because in 2017 the Environmental Commissioner, Dr. Dianne Saxe, exposed this practice (see: "Good Choices,
Bad Choices. Environmental Rights and Environmental Protection in Ontario," Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, October 2017)

Last year, the new government announced that they were axing her position to 'save money'.

So eventually, even if there are turtles living and breeding on the land, someone will be able to build there. Or will they? The government might not have the last word. Ontario's Environmental Review Tribunal (ERT) can - and has - overturned government decisions related to infrastructure on the basis of negative impacts on Blanding's Turtle habitat. That kind of thing *never* happens - until it does. And it did - at Ostrander Point in Prince Edward County - after much anguish and gnashing of teeth (see: "Endangered Ontario: The turtle that toppled turbines," TVO, July 30, 2017).  And that's the evidence that Blanding's Turtles are the pigs of Ontario's Species at Risk regime.

Turtles Protected on Crown Land in Prince Edward County. In Sudbury, Not So Much

However, in Prince Edward County, the ERT was available to hear the matter.  The same doesn't appear to be so in the case of North Bay.  The subject lands in North Bay are in private ownership - so no provincial assessment needs to be undertaken.  That's not to suggest that if the turtles are there, that an Overall Benefit Permit wouldn't still first be needed from MNRF; but it is to suggest that there is no trigger for the public now to take this matter forward to the ERT.  The granting of Overall Benefit Permits is, after all, not a public process - and there is no requirement for the MNRF to post their decision to the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry.

We here in Greater Sudbury have already found out first hand that the habitat of species at risk is, generally speaking, open for development - and that includes Blanding's turtle habitat.  Greater Sudbury is currently pushing a new road - the Maley Drive Extension - right through the heart of threatened species habitat (turtles and whippoorwill) via the use of Overall Benefit Permits.  And similar in some ways to a casino development in North Bay, one of the partners for Maley Drive is the provincial government, who provided one third of the new road's capital funding - with the federal government providing another third (see: "Sudbury's Maley Drive: A Case Study in the Erosion of Species at Risk Protection in Ontario," Sudbury Steve May, April 8, 2016).

But I'm sure that Gateway Casinos would not find any comfort in Sudbury's experience with Maley Drive - a project that has been on the books for 30 years and is just now being completed.  The Overall Benefit Permit process can take time - and if there are turtles on the site, I hope that Gateway has started working with the MNRF already - or are looking for a different site for their facility.

North Bay Looking to Become Ontario's Least-Friendly City to the Environment

But it looks like at least one member of North Bay's Council wants to 'grease the wheels' as it were.  Councillor Mac Bain will tonight be introducing two motions for the Council's consideration.  Both pertain to development within the City's urban area (where the Pinewood Drive casino lands are located).  The first motion pertains to species at risk - and if adopted, would see the City of North Bay lobby the provincial government for the outcome of being excluded from applying the Endangered Species Act to any lands within their urban area.  Essentially Bain wants the Province to break the law and give the City of North Bay some kind of exception to the legislation - via a process that doesn't exist (for the record, the correct process to achieve the outcome that Bain wants would be to either amend the existing legislation or to pass new legislation).

The second motion would similarly see the City be exempted from protecting provincially significant wetlands within their urban area.  That one is interesting, because it reminds those on Council that North Bay actually has a track record of ignoring protections for wetlands, with its reference to a biodiversity offsetting exercise that the City undertook over 10 years ago that saw a provincially significant wetland destroyed - with compensating new wetlands created elsewhere - a practice that Niagara Region and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority wants to see used for a development project known as 'Thundering Waters' (see: "AG, NPCA at odds over biodiversity offsetting," the Standard, October 9, 2018).

It's unknown how a new provincial government will react to North Bay's potential request to not be subject to existing environmental regulations.  But given Ontario's already weak regime of protecting threatened and endangered species habitat and wetlands, removing the requirements for even considering the development impacts on the natural environment in urban areas can only be seen as yet another loss for our province's natural heritage features.

Pick Another Battle - You've Already Lost This One

To the good people of North Bay who are standing up for Blanding's Turtles - I wish you the best of luck, but I just don't see a way forward for this issue to be brought up in any significant way now where the public might have an opportunity to influence outcomes.  The zoning permissions are already in place - and I could not help but note the lack of any public submissions referencing turtles (or anything environmental for that matter) at the time of the 2016 zoning amendment approval.  Yes, there is still a Site Plan that's required, and yes, if there is turtle habitat, a OBP would still be needed.  But neither are a public process.  Nor are the motions that are going in front of Council this evening - there is no opportunity for public input and engagement.

So although I wish those who, like myself, who are concerned about the welfare of threatened and endangered species in Ontario - so although I wish you luck in North Bay, from where I sit, I think that you are going to find that you are out of luck.  My advice: try to save some turtles elsewhere and pick another battle - because I fear you've already lost this one.  

***UPDATED - January 16, 2019***

Well, it looks like North Bay Council voted to move forward with plans to make that City the least environmentally friendly City in all of Ontario (see: "North Bay's pursuit of environmental exemptions called 'shocking, shameful'," the North Bay Nugget, January 16, 2019).  There's more reference here to 'rules' that were in place regarding provincially significant wetlands, dating back from 2005 - a time when the Province distinguished between the importance of wetlands in Northern Ontario and Southern Ontario - with lesser protection in the North.

It's going to be hard for the provincial government to square this circle on wetlands or species at risk - under normal circumstances.  But even the previous Liberal government had been flirting with the idea of 'biodiversity offsetting' for wetlands (see: "May: Getting harder to 'drain the swamp' in Ontario," the Sudbury Star, August 4, 2017) - and Ontario has been actively using offsetting for species at risk habitat for years now.  I think what we're seeing here coming out of North Bay - home to a very important Ontario cabinet Minister - as the first salvo in a war on the environment erupting from a different level of government.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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