December 10, 2014

Grass looks greener on the other side

As published in The Erin Advocate

I had to laugh a few days ago when a Caledon resident said some people there would like to join Erin as part of Wellington County, since it would better match their rural character. I told him some people in Erin would like to join Peel or Halton Region, to be supported by a huge commercial and industrial tax base.

The Belfountain Community Organization (BCO) is actively fighting efforts to increase tourism and a plan by Peel Region to spend $31.5 million on new infrastructure in their area. They are feeling overwhelmed and want to be left alone.

I’ve told them that if they could just forward any unwanted money down the road, Erin could put it to good use. We won’t hold our breath for that, but it’s interesting to see the contrast, as Erin tries to figure out if it wants to increasingly base its economy on tourism. Communities have to be careful what they wish for.

A number of Belfountainites were quite skeptical, at a public consultation meeting last week, when Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) asked for their opinions as part of a Master Planning Process to refurbish Belfountain Conservation Area (BCA). Some wondered how the area could be made more attractive without attracting more tourists.

A new Management Plan could see about $3 million spent over several years to create a new Visitor Welcome Centre (including office, meeting and workshop space), more efficient parking, improved accessibility, better education on natural and cultural features, a redesigned central pumphouse (with washrooms), a covered picnic pavilion and fresh landscaping.

“We have to plan for the future, so the area can be used safely,” said CVC Chief Administrative Officer Deborah Martin-Downs. She suggested that instead of doing minor repairs annually to the deteriorating facilities, it would be better that this jewel in the CVC system be “reset and polished”.

The park gets about 25,000 visitors a year, but the parking lot has only 45 spots. When it is full, visitors look for scarce parking spots in the hamlet. Laura McDonald, Conservation Lands Planner with CVC, said no targets have been set, and that they simply want to make the best use of limited space, not generate more visitors. And while more revenue is always welcome, it is also not one of the objectives, she said.

Jenni Le Forestier, President of the Community Organization, called for a Social Impact Study, saying use of the conservation lands cannot be considered in isolation from the effect on nearby residents. She also said it is important to know whether the Visitor Centre would be a rentable space that would generate extra visitors, and to what extent visitor hours might be increased in the future.

Senior Conservation Lands Planner Eric Baldin said traffic and other impacts on the community will be studied, and that the uses of the visitor centre have not been decided.

Caledon Ward 1 Regional Councillor Doug Beffort has advocated a new pathway from the hamlet’s businesses to the conservation area, away from the road, and an arrangement that would allow visitors to use the washrooms there. He said while CVC seems to be doing a good job of planning improvements, he cautioned that, “Maybe what you’re doing doesn’t fit with the overriding concerns of the community.”

An Environmental Assessment (EA) is being done on the dam, which is central to the conservation area, and on the pond that is filling with sediment. All options, including removal of the dam, will be considered. A previous EA in 2003 was shelved when no agreement could be reached on possible actions.

Entrepreneur Charles Mack first opened the park to the public 100 years ago, and CVC hopes to preserve the early 20th Century style of the facilities. The current vision is to make it an “iconic destination” for “sustainable” escarpment experiences such as hiking, photography and picnicking. CVC has identified 534 species in the area, 10 of which are at risk.