February 29, 2012

Population drop boosts risk of school closure

As published in The Erin Advocate

For the first time since the Great Depression, the population of Erin has gone down.

Statistics Canada results from the 2011 census show the town with 10,770 residents, a decline of 378 (-3.4%) since 2006. If the trend continues, including a relatively low number of families with young children, at least one of Erin's public elementary schools could close in the next few years.

The possibility was raised last month by Matt Pearson, Project Manager of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP), in a presentation to town council. He highlighted the fact that there were already population declines in the age 0-14 and age 20-29 groups before 2006.

"Eventually, you are going to say, why are we running two arenas?" he said. The largest segment is in the 40-59 age range – many of whom would like to see their kids have the opportunity to live and work in Erin.

"They can't afford to live in town if there's no jobs," he said, pointing out that the average value of a house in Erin went from $276,000 in 2001 to $410,000 in 2006, and is likely over $500,000 now. He also noted that many seniors cannot afford to downsize here.

"Fifteen per cent of the labour force works in town. It's not what you wanted. This is why we're losing school age youth. You're going to get one of these studies, one of these days, that's going to tell you you've got two schools too many.

"That's a really hard thing when a small community loses a school. It takes jobs away, it takes community focus away. How do you keep your schools? You've got to have more people."

Upper Grand School Trustee Kathryn Cooper confirmed that low enrollment is a serious concern that could lead a school closure. No changes are expected in the next couple of years as the board assesses the impact of added students in full-day kindergarten and possible changes in class sizes.

"Schools are our community hubs," she said. "We need more kids in Erin if we want to keep our schools. Boards are paid on a per student basis. Fewer students means fewer dollars."

She said that Ross R. Mackay School in Hillsburgh is at risk because the board's 2011 Identified Schools Report showed a projected enrollment of 130 students, while the school can accommodate 213. The occupancy rate of 61% is the third lowest among the board's 59 elementary schools.

Brisbane was projected to have 349 students, at 84% of capacity, while Erin Public was projected to have 438, at 74% of capacity. A new projection report will be done in the next few months.
St. John Brebeuf Catholic School has a capacity of 302, and enrollment is down slightly at 93%, with 282 students. Brebeuf and Erin Public both have full-day kindergarten, with Brisbane scheduled to get it this fall, and Mackay in September 2014.

Cooper said the current controversy over transfer of French Immersion students to Brisbane is not directly related to the low enrollment issue. French Immersion accounts for about 57% of students at Brisbane and 11% at Erin Public.

From 1901 to 1941, the combined population of Erin Township and Erin Village declined steadily, from 4,098 to 3,104. Then there were increases for each 10-year census period (including a 42% increase during the 1970s) until the downturn in 2011.

But while total population has declined since 2006, the number of private dwellings is virtually unchanged at 3,939, and up slightly from the 2001 count of 3,892.

"We have a mature population of long-term residents," said Town of Erin Planner Sally Stull. "The kids have gone someplace else, so what you are seeing is an emptying out of homes."
She does not see the population decline as an economic threat to the Town, since the tax base continues to expand, with people continuing to buy properties and add value to them.

"The community faces changes as the demographics change," she said. "We're going to see less demand for sports facilities and more for seniors centres. Even with sewage treatment, I am not convinced that we're going to see more young families."

Lack of sewers has put a hold on new subdivisions since 2007, pending completion of the ongoing SSMP Environmental Assessment.

The population of Ontario stands at 12.9 million, making up 38.4% of Canada's 33.5 million people. But the provincial growth rate of 5.7% is the lowest since the early 1980s. With today's parents having fewer children than previous generations, Canada relies on immigration for 67% of its population growth – considered essential to fuel the economy. By 2031, immigration is expected to account for 80% of population growth.

Ontario's immigration minister Charles Sousa has complained that the federal government has shifted some its funding for settlement of newcomers away from Ontario, to the booming economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Erin receives very few immigrants. As well, the ratio of Canadians living in rural areas has declined steadily from 86% in 1851 to 17% in 2011.

The 2011 census shows population increases since 2006 in the neighbouring municipalities of Caledon (+4.2%), East Garafraxa (+8.6%), Guelph Eramosa (+2.6%), Centre Wellington (+2.5%), and Halton Hills (+6.7%). Brampton was up by 20.8% to 523,911, while Milton had the fast growth in Canada, rising 56.5% to 84,362.

Population figures published by Statistics Canada do not include people missed in the census count, but the agency later provides an estimate of the rate of "undercount". For Wellington in 2001, that rate was 4.75%, so when provincial planners put population estimates in the Places to Grow charts, to be used by the county, they bumped up the census figures by 4.75%.

So while the census says Erin had 11,148 people in 2006, the planning estimate is 11,680. For 2011, planners had estimated 11,930, but that turned out to be too high. The census reported 10,770, but an extra 4.75% only brings that up to 11,281. Instead of the small increase that was predicted, Erin had a small decline.

Plan endorses intensified housing – eventually

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin Town Council has unanimously approved a series of changes to its Official Plan that would allow for higher-density housing in future subdivisions, but only if the Town gets some form of wastewater servicing.

The amendment is required to bring the Erin Official Plan in line with the Wellington County Official Plan and the Ontario Places to Grow legislation. The County has been mandated to grow significantly by 2031, in both households and jobs, and expects Erin to handle a share of that.

The new parts of the Official Plan include an affordable housing policy, a "culture of conservation", targets for residential intensification, a jobs-to-residents ratio and density targets for "greenfield" lands (previously undeveloped land within the urban boundaries). The public was invited to an information session on the changes last November.

"The Town needs to ensure that new growth helps retain the small town and rural character of the Town of Erin," the preamble to the Plan says, noting the provincial objective of curbing urban sprawl and building "complete" communities.

Most of the changes are subject to "wastewater servicing constraints", meaning that without a sewer system, no major development can take place. Sewers cannot be built until the ongoing Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) is approved, and incorporated into the Official Plan.

The recent revisions to the Official Plan include the County Growth Forecast for Erin, 2006 to 2031. Total households are predicted to rise from 3,810 to 5,460. Total employment is predicted to rise from 3,550 to 5,460.

Population projections show an additional 3,850 people in the town by 2031 (1,380 more in Erin village, 840 more in Hillsburgh, and 1,630 more in the hamlets and rural areas). The predictions were made with the assumption that sewer service would be in place by 2016. But it is now clear that it will take much longer, and that substantial new housing is likely to be built later than predicted.

Also, it was expected that the population would remain stable or increase slightly without sewers. But the 2011 census shows a 3.4 per cent population decline since 2006, making it even more difficult to predict future levels.

Still, it is significant to note that the Official Plan predicts growth of 33% over 25 years, with the fastest growth of 15% between 2021 and 2031. That is far lower than the growth rate of 42% that the town experienced from 1971 to 1981 (combined township and village).

At the January 24 council meeting, Mayor Lou Maieron questioned the accuracy of the projected growth forecast, and as noted in the minutes, had a concern that "the numbers being considered would not promote economically feasible development". Erin Planner Sally Stull said the population figures are only rough estimates, which will be revised every five years.

Council had been considering two changes to the Plan that were not approved. A provision for mandatory hookup to municipal water, where a watermain is adjacent to a property, is not included. The other omitted section would have required anyone wanting to install a "communal water treatment plant" to prove to the Town's satisfaction that it was a fail-safe system.

Instead, it simply says "roads, water and utilities will be provided to all new developments wherever feasible". It says the effect is "to clarify that the Town of Erin is reluctant to accept communal septic systems as a viable long term method of sanitary waste disposal until sufficient proof of long-term sustainability is established."

The policy of council when considering development will be to promote a "culture of conservation" that includes water, energy, air quality, waste management and existing cultural heritage features.

The Plan says the Town "will conform" to the County's overall growth strategy, which includes 20% of all residential development each year being within the already built-up parts of the urban areas. Revitalization of downtown areas will include more housing above commercial units.

Development in greenfield areas will have a minimum density of at least 40 residents and jobs per hectare (16 per acre). That could mean six housing units per acre in new subdivisions.

Developers with subdivisions approved, but not yet built, will be asked to consider revising their plans to add more homes per acre. Hamlet expansions will be limited to five residential lots.
A minimum of 25% of new housing, county-wide, must be affordable to low and moderate income households.

"The Town will contribute to the achievement of these targets, subject to servicing constraints," the Plan says. "Accessory residences will provide the bulk of affordable housing opportunities until such time as municipal wastewater servicing is provided."

Medium density housing for Erin is likely to take the form of small lot single family dwellings, townhouses or low rise apartments (4-6 stories). Institutional uses could also boost density, but high rise development is very unlikely, according to Stull.

February 22, 2012

New Hillsburgh group would protest well renewal

As published in The Erin Advocate

People who are concerned about the impact of water extraction by the Nestlé company are gearing up to oppose renewal of a permit for its Hillsburgh well, and are hoping to form a local group affiliated with Wellington Water Watchers.

A range of water issues was discussed last week after the latest film in the 2012 Fast Forward series, organized by the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE) and sponsored by Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).

The film was Water on the Table, a profile of Council of Canadians National Chair Maude Barlow, who has authored 16 books and been a prominent critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization and oil sands development. As senior advisor on water to the president of the United Nations in 2009, she addressed the General Assembly:

"The problem is that we humans have seen the Earth and its water resources as something that exists for our benefit and economic advancement rather than as a living ecological system that needs to be safeguarded if it is to survive. The human water footprint surpasses all others and endangers life on Earth itself," she said.

"Water must be seen as a commons that belongs to the Earth and all species alike. It must be declared a public trust that belongs to the people, the ecosystem and the future. Clean water must be delivered as a public service, not a profitable commodity. We need to assert once and for all that access to clean, affordable water is a fundamental human right."

The assembly endorsed the right to clean water and sanitation in 2010, with 122 countries voting in favour, and 41 (including Canada) abstaining. The vote carries no legal force and does not affect Canada's sovereign rights over its water.

Nora Chaloner, Chair of the Guelph chapter of the Council of Canadians, said at the meeting that Barlow's work means a lot in the Global South. Almost 900 million people in the world lack safe drinking water and 2.6 billion have no access to basic sanitation.

"Unfortunately the countries that did not sign on to it are in the Global North, the big, prosperous countries, the developed countries, who don't really want to have water as a human right," she said.

Groups such as the Council of Canadians and the National Farmers' Union are also concerned that a trade deal known as CETA, now being negotiated between Canada and Europe, could affect municipal water. If towns and cities end up having to seek private investment to maintain their water and waste systems, they may be obliged to accept bids from foreign corporations. This could lead to rate hikes, cut-offs for low-income households, poorer environmental protection and lack of accountability.

Bottled water, of course, is already a commercial business. Nestlé's Hillsburgh permit comes up for renewal in August. There has been no identified harm to the local water supply to date, but there is concern because the MoE is underfunded and allows Nestlé to do the monitoring. A well protection agreement between Nestlé and Erin is designed to provide rapid response to any complaints by well owners.

The Ministry of the Environment (MoE) deals with a range of issues, including the length of the license period, the opportunities for public input, the monitoring of local water levels by the company and the fee that it pays – currently just $3.74 per million litres of water.

The issue is complex, because if water is taxed as a resource (like oil), it becomes more of a commodity – one that the US could claim is tradable on a larger scale under NAFTA.
The renewal for the Aberfoyle well was approved last year with no new restrictions on volume or time period, but with extensive monitoring of other wells in the area.

Wellington Water Watchers has promoted the safety of tap water and led the local fight against bottled water and high-volume water taking. Chair Mike Nagy, a speaker after the film last week, said the group hopes to persuade the MoE to take a broader view with a "water budget" for the region, and to consider all aspects of the bottled water, such as the harm caused by plastic bottles and extensive trucking.

"We don't want to be known as the anti-Nestlé group, that's not who the Water Watchers are, but that is one of our highest profile projects," he said. "We have lost faith in the Environmental Bill Registry for the permit to take water, we feel it is a flawed process...We had 8,000 people comment in 2007 on the Aberfoyle permit – that was basically dismissed by the Ministry."

Nagy said a new strategy is being developed for the Hillsburgh renewal, but it is not being made public yet. "It's all hands on deck, we need all resources, talents, anybody that can come forward," he said.

"I'd like to see a group of people in Hillsburgh and Erin get together and hammer out the issues," said teacher Chris Green, a Hillsburgh native.

"There is power in numbers," said Chaloner. "It starts by you talking to your neighbours and your friends, and groups getting together."

If you would like to get involved, or just get more information, contact Liz Armstrong of CCAGE at liz@ican.net or 519-833-4676, or Wellington Water Watchers at www.wellingtonwaterwatchers.ca, or 519-780-5030.

Holly Nadalin of Credit Valley Conservation, which will be offering its comments on the impact of the Nestlé well, also announced a new stewardship program, with details available soon on their website, www.creditvalleyca.ca. Rural landowners will be able to apply for 65-100 per cent funding for property improvements that will enhance water quality and other aspects of the local ecology.

February 15, 2012

Cuba is a harsh lesson in conservation

As published in The Erin Advocate

To those who hope for a society that does not rely excessively on fossil fuels, may I recommend a visit to Cuba – a land with plenty of roads and very few cars.

I have been doing some mid-winter research here, scribbling my notes diligently despite the pulsating salsa music and a parade of scantily-clad distractions. There are key decisions to be made every day: Beach or pool? Buffet or à la carte? Relaxing for days at a time can drive you crazy.

I am not sure whether to feel like an upper class citizen of the world, thanks to Canada's high-value currency, or a slab of meat being grilled on the huge conveyor belt of the tourism industry. I also get a chill, knowing that if a Cuban wrote a column like mine, with mild criticism of their government, they would soon be in prison.

Cuba is a great place to meet people from other cultures, especially French Canadians. Almost half of the 2 million tourists who visit Cuba every year are Canadians, with many from Québec. Then there are the Brits, Italians, Germans and a variety of Latin tourists. Just no obvious Americans, which seems to suit everybody just fine.

The Cold War, of course, is not over here. It simmers constantly with the US, which has enforced a punishing economic embargo since 1962 and continues to levy fines on companies that do business with Cuba.

While there, I read Prisoner of Tehran, a memoir by Marina Nemat, who escaped the political repression of Iran and made it to Canada. It is important for us to remember that there are many places in the world where ordinary people live in fear of their own police and government.

Iran and Cuba are among the nations criticized by Amnesty International for severe repression of civil and political rights, with prisoners detained solely for peaceful criticism of their government.

Many nations are glad to invest in Cuba – I saw a huge nickel mine operated by the Canadian firm Sherritt – but it was Russian subsidies and trade that the country relied on for many years to build up a modern infrastructure. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an economic disaster, plunging a poor nation into deeper poverty during the 1990s.

There were severe shortages of food and fuel, and cars became a luxury that very few could afford. People had to eat less and walk more, resulting in a significant decline in deaths due to diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.

Even now, when the economy is in somewhat better shape, most of the motorized vehicles I see on the roads are taxis and buses carrying tourists. Most cars are still refurbished American models from before the embargo, or Russian Ladas used by police and others with elite status.

To buy a car is simply out of the question for most Cuban workers – it could take 10 to 100 times their annual salary, most of which is already used up for rent and other payments.

It is impossible to make direct comparisons between Cuba and Canada, but it is worth wondering just what we would do for transportation if we had a major economic meltdown, a new Depression. There would certainly be no money for fancy public transit.

Many of Cuba's roads still have washed out sections from Hurricane Ike in 2008 (reminding me of springtime gravel roads in Erin). They are busy with pedestrians, horseback riders, bicycles, tricycle taxis, horse and buggy rigs with old car axles, and public transit buses.

Groups of workers are often hauled about in old troop transports or on flatbed trucks. Instead of tractors, farm carts are drawn by small horses (they eat less) and oxen, like the ones that did the heavy work when areas like Erin were settled in the 1800s.

It is a reminder that people are generally driven to conserve by necessity, not idealism. When we run out of oil and gas, could Canada turn to tourism as its leading industry?

In Cuba, the push to open resorts to draw in foreign cash has created a situation where a good bartender with a steady flow of tips can enjoy a higher standard of living than a doctor or an engineer.

Cubans are very friendly and courteous, from the professionals to the beggars. They will complain about their low salaries if you ask them, but they are fiercely proud of their independence, their music and dance, and their universal free health care and education.

There is an underlying reserve, however. Maybe it is because until recently, just speaking with foreigners could get Cubans into hot water. Maybe when they look at me, they wonder what I ever did to deserve the privileges and opportunities of being a Canadian citizen.

February 08, 2012

County will not redevelop landfill site

As published in The Erin Advocate

It is unlikely that Wellington County would ever consider recreational redevelopment of the old Erin Village landfill site, or even allow a walking trail to pass through it, according to the Manager of Solid Waste Services.

"When it's closed, it's closed forever," said Doug Konrad. "It is to be maintained as grass only."

The County took over the site, just west of the Credit River near Church Street, about ten years ago. It was closed in 2003 under a Certificate of Approval from the Ministry of the Environment (MOE).

Konrad said it would be an expensive process to re-open and alter the terms of that certificate, which would be required even for a trail, and it could expose the county to the risk of more stringent requirements from the MOE. If formal walking trails had existed in the area in 2003, there could have been provision for them in the closure plan.

Before Christmas, the county spent about $40,000 to install a 427-meter chain link fence along the south-east border of the landfill, starting at the river. About half that cost was to reinforce it with welded cross-beams, to deter vandals who have repeatedly torn down fences in the area.

The hilly countryside has been damaged by dirt bike and all-terrain vehicle riders, with resulting erosion on both county and private property.

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing encourages municipalities to redevelop "brownfield" properties, such as former commercial, industrial or landfill sites, for more active use.

That is a costly process as well, but a brochure from that ministry says such redevelopment can support economic development and job creation, contribute to revitalization and "increase community pride and quality of life".

Other communities have successfully turned old landfills into nature parks. That option should at least be open for discussion and investigation in Erin. Research is being conducted on various uses for closed sites, even the growing of crops to be used as biofuel.

Machine traffic on the hills still has to be stopped, and maybe more fencing is inevitable. But hiker traffic carries a very low risk and it should be accommodated, even if it involves some cost. Monitor wells on the site need to be protected, but maybe there are ways to do this without turning the entire area into a fortress.

Konrad said that the MOE prefers chain link fencing at old landfills, but does not absolutely require it if the site is not being disturbed. The vandalism made it necessary to replace the old broken farm-style fences with chain link, he said. There is no immediate plan to replace the farm fences on the other sides of the landfill.

"We'll monitor the site and see what happens," he said. "Within a couple of years, it will probably be all fenced in."

February 01, 2012

Composting toilets could reduce sewage costs

As published in The Erin Advocate

Composting toilets could be part of a solution to the sewage problem that has stifled growth in Erin and threatens residents with huge costs.

The Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP) study is entering a phase this year in which engineers will work out a series of options for the Town to consider, as many of the older household septic systems in Hillsburgh and Erin village will soon need to be repaired or replaced.

One option is to do nothing, but the provincial government will not stand for that. Do we want to create our own solutions, or are we willing to have the Ministry of the Environment force some upon us?

Another option will be a full, traditional sewage system, built in phases over many years, including a large treatment plant in Erin village that would discharge into the Credit River. It would handle sewage pumped down from Hillsburgh, plus all the septage pumped from rural septic tanks. Hook-up in the urban areas would be mandatory.

The SSMP, however, must present the Town with other options. They have to be realistic options, not just some straw ideas that can be easily dismissed, or unproven technologies that are too risky.

The technology of composting toilets has advanced greatly in the last 40 years, so they can now provide efficient breakdown of waste, with no mess, no smell and minimal maintenance. Unlike modern septic systems, they do not require homes to be built on one full acre of valuable land.

The waste does not have to stay in the bathroom, under the toilet. Standard drain plumbing and minimal water can transport it from more than one toilet to a single composting unit on a lower floor or in the basement.

The device is airtight, with venting to the outdoors. Waste goes into a heated drum that rotates, mixing the material and allowing liquid to drain to an evaporation chamber. As the solid material breaks down, it moves to a finishing chamber where a drawer allows the soil-like compost to be removed without any exposure to raw waste. Manufacturer Sun-Mar Corp. says that with a large "bio-drum", most families would only have to remove compost once per year.

A top-of-the-line system costs about $2,000 at Home Depot, plus installation. Replacing a septic system can cost over $30,000, especially on the majority of old village lots, which are now too small for a standard septic tank and drain bed. No one knows what the hook-up charge for a sewer system would be, but Mayor Lou Maieron recently suggested that it could be $20,000 (spread over many years), or maybe a lot more. No one knows the cost of a treatment plant, but it would have been about $25 million in 1995, to serve Erin village only.

The key to mass adoption of a composting toilet strategy would be a communal greywater system. Greywater is the relatively clean drainage from sinks, bathtubs, showers and laundry. The main contaminants are food particles and soap products.

This water may require a system to drain or pump it to small-scale filtering areas, such as constructed wetlands that would service separate neighbourhoods. This would be a lot of trouble, but not nearly as expensive or disruptive as a full sewage system.

Would it be any more trouble than having hundreds of miniature sewage treatment plants buried under our lawns, as we now have with septic beds?

Could an entire subdivision be built without sewers or septic tanks, relying on composting toilets for contaminated waste and a filtering system for greywater?

Would people be willing to buy such houses, if they could save the cost of a $30,000 septic system, or the initial and ongoing costs of sewers? It would not be acceptable for some people, but many others would be proud to be part of such a development.

What if, instead of having to replace your entire septic system, you could extend its useful life by having a composting toilet to handle a significant amount of your waste?

What if downtown businesses could avoid the cost of having a holding tank pumped out regularly, without the massive disruption of sewer construction? (Even if sewers are built, it may be possible to build the system without entirely tearing up Main Street in the business district.)

I am not an expert on any of this stuff, but I have seen enough to know that innovative solutions are possible. Fortunately, we have hired experts for the SSMP who should be able to give us some achievable options. We're into this study for over $300,000 already, so let's make sure it is not wasted. The Town probably couldn't back out of this process even if it wanted to.

It is inevitable that Erin will get some population growth and higher density housing. Let's work to ensure it is done moderately and intelligently. Instead of giving up on the SSMP, let's set our standards high and get as much as we can out of it.