Intervenor: Vol 23. No 4 October - December 1998

Vineyards Are For Growing Grapes Not Resorts

American social critic Will Rogers, referring to why people should use land wisely, once said, "They're not making any more of it."

The Niagara Land Company wants to build what amounts to a four-season "winery resort" right at the edge of the Niagara Escarpment forest above Vineland on the Niagara Peninsula. Turning its back on the ecological significance of the escarpment as a United Nations World Biosphere Reserve, the company would build an 86,000-square-foot development -- the area of 57 average-size homes. It would consist of a winery, a 120-seat restaurant, a culinary teaching centre and guest cottages housing over 110 people.

The Ontario wine-production industry has matured over the past quarter century; Ontario wines now compete globally. Recently, the Vintners Quality Alliance, an association of Ontario wine-producers who use all-Ontario grapes, stated that the full development of the industry requires planting an additional 2,000 acres, mostly on the Niagara Peninsula. This is not merely good farmland; its microclimate and soils make it unique and very special. The VQA's proposal to extend the peninsula's vineyards is a good one. Why, then, is the provincial government even considering allowing a resort on such choice land?

As one of its final actions in 1985, the Progressive Conservative government of the day approved the Niagara Escarpment Plan to control development along this precious natural corridor stretching from Tobermory to Niagara Falls. The Plan allows bed and breakfast homes for about six to eight guests each, but it does not allow a resort on grape-growing lands. The Plan does allow a winery as a land use that is an adjunct to the agricultural activity of growing grapes.

Recently, the Plan has been interpreted as allowing a restaurant as a spin-off to a winery on grape-growing lands. The Niagara Land Company has applied to amend the Niagara Escarpment Plan to permit its winery resort. But no one can argue that the 56 guest cottages in the Niagara Land Company's proposal are an adjunct to growing grapes. A clear decision is needed on where the dominoes must stop falling.

Promoting the Ontario wine industry through "agri-tourism" ventures is a good thing. The debate is over where these enterprises should locate. Commenting on the winery resort, the planning staff at the Niagara Escarpment Commission, the Niagara Region and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs are all opposed to putting overnight accommodation for 110 people on this grape-growing land. They say that the guest cottages belong in nearby urban areas.

If the Cabinet decides in favour of the Vineland resort, a dangerous precedent will be set. The very purpose of the Niagara Escarpment Plan-to allow only an amount and kind of development that is compatible with the escarpment's fragile natural environment and open, rural landscape-will be thwarted. Other developers will seek similar variances to the Plan, citing this approval as their rationale.

The Niagara Land Company proposal begs a bigger question: where should the line be drawn on paving over Ontario's prime agricultural lands?

That question has dogged successive provincial governments for over 30 years. The struggle to protect thousands of acres of prime (Classes 1 to 3) farmland in Pickering from a second Toronto international airport began in the early 1970s and continues to this day. By the late 1970s, the battle to save 500 acres of Class 1 farmland in Vaughan from the Canada's Wonderland amusement park had been fought and lost. Airports, amusement parks and tourist resorts are hardly the best use of Ontario's irreplaceable crop lands.

The current Vineland resort case is an acid test for the Harris Cabinet, which will be deciding the matter in the coming weeks. Will they listen to the wine industry as a whole, which wants to save as much grape-growing land as possible from the back hoe, or will they cave in to the interests of one particular vintner and his grandiose plans for a development that has no place on our diminishing agricultural lands?

Dr. James Molnar, an archeologist living in Lion's Head on the Bruce Peninsula, is president of CONE (the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment). Linda Pim works at the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, one of the 17 environmental and community organizations in the coalition.