May 01, 2013

Needs of existing residents defended

As published in The Erin Advocate

If there is anyone out there who actually wants to see a traditional sewer system built in Erin village and Hillsburgh, now would be a good time to speak up, since the Town will soon decide whether to carry on down that road.

For four years, I have urged people to get involved, and written about the possibility of getting the advantages of a sewer system, while preserving Erin's charm. As far as I know, no one is yet convinced that this is possible with a traditional gravity-based system, or that the $65 million cost of such a system is justified.

Urban residents appear to be fall into three groups – those who adamantly oppose sewers, those who have given up caring (if they ever did) because they think sewers will never happen, and those who would reluctantly accept them if the cost and damage to the town could be reduced.

No one thinks Erin is perfect – far from it. People would like to see improvements. But from the start of the Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP), through all the public meetings and letters to the editor, there has been a clear, overwhelming message: the unique character of  Erin must be preserved.

What is the point of holding public consultations if you are going to ignore what the public says? To impose a system upon a community that is united against it would be foolhardy.

But opponents must also take up their responsibility for issues that Erin faces, from failing septic systems to pressure for new housing. To just say "No!" is easy. To seek a consensus on what should actually be done is more challenging.

Two community groups, Transition Erin and Concerned Erin Citizens (CEC), are trying to look for realistic alternatives. They have arrived a bit late in the process, but their role is still essential.

I recently interviewed Matt Sammut, who next Monday, May 6 at 7:30 pm, will speak for CEC at a special Town Council meeting and present a petition opposing construction of large-scale housing developments and a centralized sewage system. They will also be a delegation (if necessary) at the regular council the next evening, May 7.

"It seems wrong that the developer is controlling the process," said Sammut. Town Council is being urged by Chief Administrative Officer Frank Miele to form a partnership with various developers to share the cost of the next phase of the Environmental Assessment, when the SSMP is not yet complete.

After a review period and further public input, council will have to decide on its preliminary preferred strategy. Only then could further studies proceed.

The CEC's main point is that before considering the needs of future residents or how the town should change, the needs of existing residents must come first.

The potential site of a sewage treatment plant on Tenth Line at Wellington Road 52 lies within view of Sammut's home. But he says if the site was on the other side of town, he'd be fighting it just as hard. He said plants do not work perfectly and that odor problems are inevitable.

"There will be an impact on property values," he said, estimating that if there were a 10 per cent devaluation of 180 homes in the three nearby subdivisions, the loss of equity would total $10 million.

"Why should they pay the price? I wouldn't buy a house close to a plant. We're up here for the clean air. There will be an uprising."

He expects Town Council to stand up for residents, and to be prepared to defend itself at the Ontario Municipal Board if necessary.

Serviced industrial land is part of the Town's economic development strategy, which hopes to create jobs and build up commercial tax assessment, by retaining businesses and attracting new ones.

"They won't come unless we give them a tax break, which would defeat the purpose," he said, predicting a larger population of commuters. He also said homes would be generally devalued in the market if Erin can no longer provide what the majority of residents came here for – an escape from the traditional urban environment.

"We do need to have some growth, but it has to be manageable," he said. A provincially mandated inspection system to deal with failing septic systems would be acceptable to him, as would a decentralized communal sewage system that avoided the need for a large treatment plant.

He said if the provincial government wants to insist on a sewer system, they should be prepared to pay for it.

"Environmentally, do we really have to go for a full system?" he said. "We are not close enough to the GTA that we should be forced to build a full system."