So you want to buy a forest
You’re buying a forest? That’s wonderful! What a privilege, to own a natural space where you can withdraw from the stresses of modern life and enjoy something that’s becoming increasingly rare.
You want to get value from the forest? You’re so wise. I’m sure you will build wonderful memories from family gatherings, camping and roaming the trails, harvesting wild foods, learning what’s involved in becoming the steward of a complex natural environment.
Ah, it’s financial value you’re looking for. Good thinking. A well-managed forest can yield returns – it is a long-term project and quite labour-intensive, but you will have so much fun as you work to improve the quality of your woodlot.
Serious money? Well, if you’re looking at development-style returns, a forest is not the best option. There’s a framework of provincial and municipal rules that direct where residential and other types of development can occur. These rules protect natural features that play an important function in the health of the environment and the people and creatures that live in it.
Flout the rules, or even just try to work around them, and you could find yourself at the centre of a storm of controversy, with irate neighbours waving protest signs outside your property and packing the town hall to oppose your project. That’s what just happened to Tecumseth Estates / Maria Rizzardo (the Rizzardos are a well-known local family of developers), owners of the Beeton Woods, where clear-cutting began a few days ago.
Some residents told council Monday night that they were prepared to chain themselves to trees and machinery and risk arrest to protect the forest. Such events can leave a lasting stain on a business reputation.
In this case, allegedly, the forest is being cleared so the land can be used for agriculture. This is going to be 35 acres of increasingly scarce farmland, so what’s the problem?
There is a problem. It’s that mature hardwood forest is also a scarce resource (which is why Simcoe County has a forest conservation bylaw). And why is it that so many neighbours believe that housing is the crop the Rizzardos have in mind? The fact remains that the Rizzardos bought a forest and then had to get some special permissions in order to turn it into a field (and, perhaps, eventually, a subdivision). There were three obstacles:
-The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, because there are butternut trees, an endangered species, in the forest. Details of the ministry’s requirements of what the property owner must do to compensate for removal of the species have not been made public. It’s worth noting that in 2013, despite a storm of protest from environmental groups, the Wynne government changed the province’s Endangered Species Act by allowing a broad range of exemptions that dramatically reduced protection of at-risk species. Ontario Nature, the Wildlands League and Ecojustice have challenged the exemptions in court, arguing that the changes are unlawful because they undermine the act’s central purpose. It’s not clear whether the changed regulations factored into the MNR decision, but they are part of a new culture where the ministry fails to enforce the protections it’s mandated to provide.
-The Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority, because removal of such a large swathe of forest will affect surface- and ground-waters as well as drainage and erosion for a large area. The nearby Beeton Creek is part of the Innisfil Creek subwatershed, which was described in a 2013 report as the most degraded subwatershed within the NVCA jurisdiction, with generally poor stream health and only fair forest and wetland conditions. The good news: groundwater health was rated very good. Will it remain that way? A peculiarly local twist is a problematic raw sewage main held up by a rickety bridge that carries Beeton sewage to Alliston, apparently a bandaid measure arising out of deficiencies in the sewage treatment plant that serves the communities.
It appears that the NVCA signed off on the Tecumseth Estates application, requiring some ‘refinements’ (the word used in a Simcoe County staff report) to protect stream corridors and steep slopes. We don’t know what the refinements are as the NVCA has refused to release the environmental impact study carried out for it by Tecumseth Estates’ consultant. AWARE Simcoe has filed a Freedom of Information request seeking the information. It should be noted that until the recent municipal election, the NVCA board of directors was under the sway of a pro-development majority. While such considerations should not influence the science-based requirements made by staff, it has been known to happen.
-The County of Simcoe forestry department, which has been engaged on this property since 2012, when the owner started cutting trees (including butternut) without a permit, and a stop-work order was issued. Fast forward to January 13, 2015, when County Forester Graeme Davis recommended to the county’s committee of the whole that the Rizzardos’ application for a special permit to clear 35 acres be granted, ‘to expand an agricultural operation.’ The report was adopted with only Oro-Medonte Deputy Mayor Ralph Hough voicing any objections.
New Tecumseth’s representatives – Mayor Rick Milne and Deputy Mayor Jamie Smith – were absent from that meeting because they were dealing with the town’s budget. But they do receive the county’s agenda in advance, and they were present at the January 27 meeting of county council that ratified the committee of the whole approval and they could easily have pulled the item, asked the obvious questions, and halted the process. Milne and Smith ran for and were elected to carry out both county and lower-tier responsibilities, it really is astonishing that they both fumbled the ball on this one. However, reports I hear of the Monday council meeting indicate that council is now responding to residents’ concerns and working hard to set things right.
According a staff report on another special permit application (to clear three acres in Innisfil) approved January 13, Simcoe County’s forest conservation bylaw exists “to prevent the over-harvesting of forests and regulate the conversion of forested lands to alternate uses in recognition of the significant societal benefits provided by healthy forests,” including:
· Watershed health
· Soil conservation
· Air quality
· Carbon sequestration
· Wildlife habitat
· Forest products
· Recreational opportunities
· Improved human health
· Increased property values
The bylaw was strengthened in 2011 in order to “more effectively conserve the forest landscape and prevent overharvesting, protect sensitive natural areas, encourage ‘good forestry practices’, and ensure a sustainable supply of timber.”
The bylaw makes provision for ‘Special Permits’, generally granted to accommodate farmers. It requires that notice of special permit applications be sent to several parties, including the local municipality and neighbouring property owners. It appears that did not happen. While the staff report states that New Tecumseth had no objections, at Monday’s New Tec council meeting, residents were told that’s not true.
Under pressure from the local council and residents, Simcoe County has issued a stop-work order and is investigating. The Rizzardos have 30 days to appeal.
My advice to anyone who wants to get development returns from property: Read the municipality’s Official Plan, and invest in a location that has been designated for future growth – not a forest. Because citizens are getting increasingly dissatisfied with a system that allows an investor to buy a property designated for a certain use at a price that reflects that use – and then to short-circuit the planning process at the expense of important priorities our society has established through our elected representatives.
Simcoe County staff report rsc462236
NVCA’s health check for Innisfil Creek sub watershed