August 04, 2010

Make CVC report public before election campaign

As published in The Erin Advocate

Should Erin's Vision Statement say we want "many" residents employed locally? Or would "more" be sufficient? How about "most"? Such questions were debated by the Town's SSMP Liaison Committee, when it met recently after a seven-month break.

Does "a town to call home" sound too obvious? Would it be better to say "safe and livable community"? It is all very interesting, but the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) needs to get on with its primary mandate: the pros and cons of sewers.

The Liaison Committee has drifted through a visioning-educational-background phase, including a "mind-mapping" exercise – drawing lines between coloured ovals on a giant issues chart.

Consulting firm B.M. Ross was hired in 2008 to coordinate the SSMP project, with costs expected to exceed $400,000. They are delivering what the Town requested: a broad-based study, looking 25 years into the future. The time has come, however, to move beyond the fluffy stuff.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) has completed an important report on the environmental impact of having (or not having) a sewer system. The report was expected in January, but was not delivered to the Town until May. That put much of the SSMP process on hold.

The report is not being kept secret, but we are not allowed to read it yet. Project Manager Matt Pearson said only that the CVC appears willing to have the Credit River used to handle the discharge from a sewage system.

The report is locked in the gears of the study process, and is scheduled for release as an appendix to a larger background report early in the fall. That could be delayed. In the meantime, we have a municipal election on October 25, with people getting their mail-in ballots in late September.

The next town council is not expected to oversee any actual sewer construction, but there will be important decisions. If they make the commitment, there will be densities to be negotiated with residential developers, considered key to financing the project. How will sewers be phased in? What technology will be used for the sewage treatment plant? Will sludge from the plant be spread on farm fields as fertilizer? Will the same plant serve Hillsburgh? Where will they build the plant? (The north side of the Deer Pit is one possibility.)

We need to start discussing specific issues about how to service the urban areas, and the best place to start is the CVC report. There should be a thorough debate during the municipal election campaign about sewers, environmental protection, housing development and preserving Erin's charm. That will be very difficult without knowing the details of the report.

Normally, it would be sufficient to have the CVC report released in due course. But with the election imminent, I think the report should be made public on its own, by releasing it to the Liaison Committee at its August 25 meeting.

If this cannot be arranged, Town Council should consider intervening in the process. Councillors could be provided with the Executive Summary and Recommendations of the report, so they know what they are dealing with. Then, at their August 24 meeting, they could officially receive the full report and authorize its immediate release.

I am sure the report will be complex, and analysis by our consultants will be of great value. However, I see no harm in getting information out to the public so they can have a basic understanding of the environmental issues before the election campaign. It will enable candidates to take positions and could even prompt some people to run for council.

During the election campaign, what will candidates say to residents who have waste seeping up in their back yards from broken-down septic systems? (Buy an expensive new system designed to last 30 years, or wait for the big pipe?)

What will they say to residents concerned about employers being forced to leave Erin due to lack of services? Or to seniors forced to leave due to lack of housing. Or to those concerned about pollution of ground water and the Credit River? After so many years without progress on this issue, will it be enough to say, "We're doing a study..."?

The Town plans to mail a newsletter on the SSMP to all households in early September. Sometime in the fall, there will be a public meeting to discuss the background report. The final report, originally expected by this December, may not be ready until late next year.

Most residents are cynical about the whole process, if they even know about it. The public is not clamouring for a sewer system. The majority are rural residents who will never get the service. Many urban dwellers are either dead against it, or very reluctant. The fact that little appears to be happening is just fine for some.

The SSMP process allows the Town to go nice and slow, while still being able to assure the Ministry of the Environment that they are working on it.

I know it is the middle of the summer, and people may not want to think about the election. But I do appeal to those who would like to see the CVC report released early to make their voices heard in the next couple of weeks. We need a good debate during the election campaign, and for that we need solid information.