‘I’ve never seen the devastation that I saw out there,’ says experienced wetland evaluator of clear-cutting near Ramara Airport
By: Nathan Taylor Orillia Matters
The airport, which has asked the Township of Ramara to sell it a road allowance to make way for a second runway, is under fire for clear-cutting trees in a swath of wetland.
Local naturalist Bob Bowles is certified through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry as a wetland evaluator. He visited the site Tuesday to ensure the minimum 30-metre setback from the wetland was being adhered to.
“I need not have worried about the less than 30-metre setback from the wetland,” he said. “What I witnessed and got several photos of was a strip 100 metres wide and about 500 metres long cleared that was once a wetland swamp with large black ash, silver and red maple trees.”’
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Bowles told OrilliaMatters he lost sleep over it that night.
“It really shook me,” he said. “I’ve never seen the devastation that I saw out there — a whole swath cut right through a wetland.”
During the township’s committee-of-the-whole meeting this week, Mayor Basil Clarke said mapping of land designated natural area protection is “very inconsistent.”
Bowles acknowledged not enough work was done in the past to determine specifically what portion of the land in question would be deemed provincially significant wetland.
In 1984, he said, in an effort to protect nearby Mud Lake, a border for the wetland was mapped out. However, that process wasn’t “followed through” with regard to the portion of the wetland closest to the airport property.
He said some of the clear-cut area was on an unevaluated part of the wetland, but most was on an evaluated section.
“That wetland should be evaluated (in its entirety),” he said, adding the province has the tools to do it in a timely manner.
Even if the trees were cut down on an area not deemed provincially significant, there is still cause for concern, Bowles said.
“The whole area should be protected. We need that wetland,” he said, noting it mitigates flooding — an issue residents and cottagers face yearly in that area. “Wetlands filter impurities, prevent erosion and prevent flooding. They are so important. These are the lungs of the environment.”
Geraldine Stegman agrees.
She owns property on nearby Bluebird Street and has dealt with annual flooding. When she purchased the property 20 years ago, she knew it was on a flood plain, but she also knew the wetland was nearby.
“My No. 1 concern, for obvious reasons, is flooding. My immediate thought was, ‘That’s our wetland. It is vital for mitigating flooding,’” she said. “Maybe the water is going to go up even more and reach my cottage.”
She also noted there was a blue-green algae bloom in Lake St. John last summer and that wetlands help purify water that goes into the lake.
“The more damage we do to a wetland, the harder it is to protect the lake,” she said. “I have naively thought that that was always there for us.”
Stegman regularly walks in that area. When she went recently and saw the trees had been cut down, she was “devastated.”
“I’m gutted and I don’t understand it,” she said.
The township’s committee of the whole voted this week to declare the unopened road allowance surplus, paving the way for a potential sale to the airport. That decision will be up for ratification at Monday’s council meeting.
Stegman was baffled as to why the township would declare it surplus.
“How can a township determine a wetland is surplus? I just can’t accept that,” she said. “They have an opportunity, by not selling that right-of-way, to protect it.”
Stegman was also upset with what she saw as a lack of concern from council members about the seriousness of the situation.
“It was gut wrenching that only one councillor listened to us and shared our concerns, and he’s not even our (ward) councillor,” she said. “We had one councillor — one councillor — picking up our concerns.”
That councillor is David Snutch, and he expressed numerous concerns Monday about the decision to declare the road allowance surplus and about what’s been happening on the airport property that abuts Lake St. John.
“How you could ever consider trees and wildlife surplus is just beyond me,” he said. “Like, we don’t need the trees? We don’t need the animals? The fact that we have the road allowance there is allowing the surrounding residents to have the peaceful enjoyment of their properties.”
He also took issue with the staff report, ordered by council last week, to determine whether the township had any future use for the road allowance and if it should be declared surplus.
Jennifer Connor, clerk and director of legislative and community services, wrote in her report, “Staff has confirmed that the road is not required for anything by the township. As well, all other properties surrounding the unopened road allowance are either completely under water or part of the wetland and no development will ever take place. The land is surplus to municipal needs.”
Snutch said the report didn’t include enough information, including comments from other township departments.
“I just don’t think there’s any thought gone into whether this is surplus. It’s just like, ‘Yup, it’s surplus.’ Show me the report,” he said. “And how can provincially significant wetlands and unevaluated wetlands be considered surplus?”
He called it “the fastest staff report in the history of this township, and this is a huge decision to be rushing through.”
Snutch put forth a motion to defer a decision until more information could be provided. That motion was defeated.
Clarke said even if the road allowance is sold to airport owner Clayton Smith, he will have to get necessary approvals for the work he wants to complete. He said staff has determined it to be surplus and that’s the matter the committee was dealing with.
The mayor also had a favourable remark about Smith’s plans to create a new runway.
“What he’s proposing is safer than what is there now, so to stand in the way of this and even to delay, I question what your intentions are,” he told Snutch.
Snutch said the township needs to follow its own fill bylaw and that the fill that’s been trucked to site shouldn’t be there.
He said he only learned last week, from someone who had flown over the area, that trees had been cut down — work that took place prior to Smith’s presentation to council last Monday.
“They knew all this when they made the deputation to us,” Snutch said, but noted it was not brought up during the discussion.
“It’s just crazy, the lack of respect they’ve had for our environment in this way. There’s absolutely no way I’m voting to approve this today,” he said.
Council approved a motion that reads, in part, “that we provide notice that we will consider stopping up, closing and selling the portion of road allowance that crosses the airport lands.”
Snutch faced criticism from some of his colleagues. Deputy Mayor Joe Gough felt Snutch should have declared a conflict of interest, saying he heard the councillor had hired a lawyer.
“You shouldn’t be discussing it whatsoever,” Gough told him.
Snutch said he hadn’t hired a lawyer, but was “working with” one to look into the matter.
Coun. Gary Hetherington admonished Snutch for going “rogue” on the issue.
Despite that comment, Hetherington did successfully seek an amendment to the motion — that all required permits be obtained prior to a transfer of the land.
Airport officials have not yet responded to OrilliaMatters’ request for comment.