October 29, 2014

Fighting to preserve Belfountain's character

As published in Country Routes

For residents who want to keep Belfountain more or less the way it is, the never-ending battle is heating up once again.

It has been 27 years since they united to successfully oppose construction of a subdivision just south of the hamlet, which is in west Caledon near the Forks of the Credit.

They have been through Ontario Municipal Board hearings, Niagara Escarpment Commission rulings, negotiations with developers, appeals to politicians and a couple of name changes along the way.

With the housing plan recently revived, and Peel Region determined to rebuild roads and add sidewalks in the hamlet, the Belfountain Community Organization (BCO) has elected a new executive, ready to fight tooth and nail to preserve the unique nature of the community.

“We want to keep Belfountain intact so that people can enjoy it,” said President Jenni Le Forestier. During the municipal election campaign, they distributed signs with the message, “STOP SPRAWL”.

Many existing residents have problems with water quantity and quality in their private wells, and fear that a new subdivision could make things worse. BCO has hired a hydrogeologist to review the results of a water study by the developer.

On the roads front, Peel Region has conducted an environmental assessment, with considerable community input. It is pressing ahead with a plan to spend $31.5 million on area roads, including $12 million in the hamlet.

BCO has filed a detailed appeal against the plan with the Ministry of the Environment, including a petition of 338 signatures that can be seen on their website, www.belfountain.ca. 

The petition says, “The Region of Peel plans to completely change the rural charm of the village by installing unnecessary sidewalks, culverts, streetlights and parking. Despite community feedback to ‘leave the roads as they are’, the Region plans to go ahead with these expensive and unwanted ‘improvements’.

Jenni Le Forestier

“This project will further endanger species already at risk and ruin the beauty of the hamlet. This plan was defeated in 2003, so why is this being raised again, against the wishes of the tax paying residents of our hamlet?”

Lynn Wood asks, in a comment published with the petition, “Why is it so impossible for the powers that be in our local government to accept that not every village needs to look like a miniature version of a city streetscape?”

Wade Domet appears to capture the feeling of many residents in his petition comment when he says, “Peel Region, HANDS OFF BELFOUNTAIN”.

At a September 29 community meeting, people were asked, “As a resident of Belfountain, do you want a new paved and urban street scape or a natural rural street scape?” The result was a 98% vote for Rural, said Le Forestier.

The Region’s plan is intended to improve road safety and drainage, but she says, “There have been no pedestrian accidents in five years, and drainage is not a problem.”

Sidewalks were intended for students going to Belfountain School and the Belfountain Conservation Area, but she says but students are bused to the school, and the proposed sidewalks don’t go to the Conservation Area, the prime local tourist attraction.

BCO is also unhappy with a plan to increase parking there to 75 spots from the current 35. Many residents can accept the current number of visitors to the hamlet, but are alarmed at efforts to encourage more.

“All of these things will have a cumulative effect, with a huge impact on residents and even visitors,” said Le Forestier. “Little places are being pressured to be more than they are supposed to be.”

Built on the “Small is Beautiful” motto, BCO is not just about development and politics. Their website provides useful information on community events, local attractions and accommodations, government services and other community groups such as the Belfountain Heritage Society and ecoCaledon.

The big event of the year is the annual Salamander Festival, co-sponsored by BCO and Credit Valley Conservation (CVC). It happens this year on Saturday, September 27 at the Conservation Area, where the West Credit River winds through dramatic Niagara Escarpment terrain. It was once home to three saw mills and a brownstone quarry.

In addition to celebrating the Jefferson Salamander (one of six endangered species that BCO says are threatened by development), the festival is an opportunity to try local food, enjoy family entertainment and learn about river ecology.

The site was once a private park owned by in the early 1900s by philanthropist Charles Mack, inventor of the cushion-back rubber stamp. He built a dam, a suspension bridge, stone walls, scenic lookouts and a fountain topped with a bell to honour the village.

CVC bought it in 1959, and it has become a popular destination for GTA day-trippers – who also frequent the small collection of shops and restaurants near the intersection of Old Main Street (Mississauga Road) and Bush Street.

The hamlet itself has only 106 households and stores, and some who call the place home feel invaded on weekends. They especially resent visitors who drive dangerously, park inappropriately and discard garbage indiscriminately.

In 1994 the Region said area roads needed “immediate” improvements, due to structural deficiencies, missing shoulders, unsafe driving conditions and inadequate stopping sight distances – but the environmental assessment (EA) was never completed.

When it was revived in recent years, studying an area to the south bounded by Mississauga Road, Olde Base Line Road and Winston Churchill Blvd., many residents said sidewalks are not needed in the hamlet for pedestrian safety.

The EA study identified “a need to reduce collisions and improve safety, particularly where there are steep grades, sharp curves, vertical crests, and driveways.” Some residents wouldn’t mind a better road surface, but want the hills and curves to remain as part of the local charm.

They blame bad behaviour by drivers of cars, motorcycles and bicycles for safety issues – not the road design. They fear “improvements” will increase traffic speeds and destroy the atmosphere that made the hamlet attractive in the first place.

One of BCO’s flyers says, “The countryside is under siege by developers, road and highway builders, and the Province’s apparent intention to build on some of our best farmland.” They note that legislation covering the Niagara Escarpment, the Green Belt and the Oak Ridges Moraine will be reviewed in 2015, and feel that natural and historic heritage, animal habitat, water and the beauty of the land are at risk.

The residents’ group was known for many years as the Belfountain Task Force, formed to oppose an application by Enterac Properties Ltd. to build a subdivision of large lots on the old Willis farm lands at the south end of the hamlet. They raised $150,000 and had success when the OMB and the NEC rejected various development proposals, mainly because of water supply issues.

From 1993 to 2007 the group was called the Belfountain Community and Planning Organization (BCPO), with a mandate to address broader local issues. Since 2007 the name has been the Belfountain Community Organization. In June, the new executive held a Lobsterfest fundraiser, expecting to need funds for a renewed fight, but hoping it won’t have to go to the OMB.

The developer, now under the name Orb Developments Inc., continues to look for an acceptable way to develop their lands between Shaws Creek Road and Mississauga Road, with an expectation that the Town of Caledon could allow some population growth in hamlets.

There had been some earlier discussion of obtaining water from the Town of Erin, which has municipal wells, or from another area of Peel. BCO says these options are not feasible, and that a municipal well in Belfountain would not be able to generate sufficient volume for a water system.

BCO did a water survey of existing households last year, with about half responding. Hydrologist Hailey Ashworth reported that 13 households, including seven on Old Main Street, had water shortages, and another six required cisterns. Water quality issues including high sulfur, iron content and coliform contamination were listed by 16 of the 48 respondents.

Belfountain Conservation Area