Intervenor: vol. 26, no. 1, January - March 2001

Determining the Future of the Niagara Escarpment: Province's Plan up for Review

The province has launched its second Five-Year Review of the Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP), the provincial plan which has regulated development on the Niagara Escarpment since 1985.

The NEP has been admired worldwide as a model land use plan which balances the needs of human populations with the protection of the environment. In 1990, the Niagara Escarpment was declared a United Nations World Biosphere Reserve, in large part because of the protections afforded it in the NEP. Environmentalists credit the progressive provisions of the NEP for protecting the Escarpment from the rampant urban sprawl that has spread across much of the rest of southern Ontario.

The Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act (NEPDA) requires the government to undertake Five-Year Reviews of the NEP as a way of evaluating the Plan's effectiveness in protecting the Niagara Escarpment, and updating it to address new issues. The last Five-Year Review concluded in 1994. Changes to the NEPDA under the Red Tape Reduction Bill (1999) now require reviews every ten years, so the next review after this one is not expected to take place until 2011.

Unlike the 1994 Review which re-opened the entire NEP for discussion, the 2001 Five-Year Review has been scoped to examine just five emerging issues: estate winery developments on the Niagara Peninsula, rural tourism, signage and billboards along Escarpment roads, environmental monitoring, and intensive recreational development in Escarpment parks and the status of land trusts.

The government's decision to scope this review has been supported by the environmental community, and reflects the growing consensus that the NEP is sound as it is, so "if it ain't broke don't fix it."

On January 25, 2001, the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC) released Discussion Papers on each of the issues being considered in the Review for a 60-day public comment period. On April 11, 2001, they will release a Plan Review Document, outlining all of their proposed amendments to the NEP. The Niagara Escarpment Hearing Office will then hold a public hearing on the proposed changes from April 16 to August 10, 2001.

In January, the hearing office released its draft rules of procedure for the hearing. The rules were immediately condemned by the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE), a coalition of 26 organizations across Ontario, including CELA. Calling it a "kangaroo court", CONE blasted the draft rules for not allowing any witnesses, cross-examination, or closing arguments.

On March 1, 2001, the hearing officer released its final rules of procedure which improved on some of the issues identified in CONE's critique. There will be an opportunity prior to the oral hearing for participants to ask written questions of one another regarding their respective written submissions. Also, participants will be given the option of filing written closing arguments.

Written submissions can be made between April 16 and June 1. The oral portion of the hearing begins July 16 and is scheduled for four to six weeks with dates in St. Catharines, Milton, Orangeville and Owen Sound. All stakeholders, including members of the public, municipalities, and organizations, will be given 30 minutes to make their presentations.

The entire process will wrap up when the NEC makes its final recommendations for changes to the NEP to Cabinet in November. The final decision rests with Cabinet.

CONE is taking a leadership role during the Five-Year Review, preparing written submissions, promoting the opportunities for public comment, and providing advice to groups and individuals on their comments. CONE participated in the hearings which gave rise to the original NEP in 1985, and was a full party during the first Five-Year Review in 1990-1994 with legal
representation from CELA.

CONE is maintaining a page on its website dedicated to the review process at www.niagaraescarpment.org. For more information please contact CONE at (416) 960-2008
__________________________________

Jason Thorne is the Coordinator of CONE