Victory for the Cloud Bay Wetland

Victory for the Cloud Bay Wetland

By Glenn Dale,
President Shoreline Stewardship Association of Cloud Bay and Little Trout Bay

Residents at Cloud Bay and neighboring Little Trout Bay still congratulate each other on their land-use hearing win. Memory of the hugs and handshakes is vivid.

Cloud Bay is a small, enclosed bay, 24 miles south of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and 12 miles from the Minnesota border. It is roughly circular and sheltered by two peninsulas, which provide protection. The bay has relatively warm waters in comparison to cold Lake Superior. Conditions such as these, which are conducive to wetlands, exist on only 1% of Lake Superior’s Canadian shoreline. On the horizon, between the peninsulas, Michigan’s Isle Royale is visible. The government of Ontario designates Cloud Bay’s wetland as “Provincially Significant”, and an Environment Canada Atlas also maps it as environmentally sensitive for spawning fish and migratory waterfowl.

This treasured wetland, located in the Neebing Municipality of Ontario, was suddenly threatened when in late August 1999, neighbors of the wetland came upon workers clearing brush and pulling “weeds” in preparation for the development of a 300 to 600 site trailer park. In September of 1999, several residents requested an informal meeting with trailer park investors, but when residents arrived at the meeting they found that in addition to the trailer park investors, Neebing Municipality’s mayor, and the Neebing Municipality councilors were also in attendance. Subsequent meetings verified that the council planned approval by mid-fall.

Concerned neighbors met, elected an executive and decided to call themselves the Shoreline Stewardship Association of Cloud Bay and Little Trout Bay. Seventy families signed petitions, protesting the rezoning of the land from rural to commercial for the trailer park; twenty-one of the families were year-round residents, and the rest were seasonal residents.

A public meeting, required for zoning change, was held in November 1999. Participants spilled into the halls. A trailer camp concept of 75 phase one sites was presented. Objectors spoke formally. Julian Holenstein, of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, instructed masterfully on the value and sensitivity of the wetland. The process was to be delayed until January 2001 as a second technically improved public hearing was deemed mandatory. Resident and councilor exchanges continued. In February, the Neebing council rammed through two bylaws in one night, one for commercial zoning of the land in question, and one amending Neebing’s Official (Land Use) Plan.

The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), our avenue of appeal, is the most senior land use planning tribunal in the province and is unique to Ontario. In the event of an appeal, a Toronto based OMB hearing officer (called a chair) would attend a meeting in the Neebing municipality to hear both sides of the controversy and then pass judgment.

The combination of the $30,000 estimated cost of an appeal (eventually to become $60,000) and the remote location, of “us northerners” and the land in question, (approximately 1,400 KM or 900 miles from Toronto), was of no reassurance to our group of concerned neighbors. However, the residents met and by December they had answered our funding plea with $16,000. Hard knock laborers, mill workers, professionals, retirees, and contract workers all pitched in; some had the cash to spare, some used a line of credit or borrowed from their life savings, some gave in increments.GLAHNF also answered our plea for assistance. In addition, Environmental Defense Canada, our registered charity partner, shared with us wetland grants from the Peacock and Richard Ivey Foundations.

With the neighborhood mandate to oppose the trailer park, we appealed the zoning change to the OMB. Because Ontario Natural Resources had declared this a “provincially significant” wetland, some asked why they couldn’t just stop the construction of the trailer camp in the wetland. Nothing could be that simple for protecting Ontario’s wetlands! Finally we decided to ask a lawyer to take over our well-documented paper trail. We also decided to engage an OMB experienced planner.

A resolution passed by the Council before our 2002 provincial hearing reads in part, “… that there be an instruct (sic) to the Ministry of Natural Resources to removal (sic) these private properties from the Lists of “Wetlands” and” Provincially Significant Wetlands “and the Values Maps or that they make financial restitution to these private property owners.”

We continued lobbying. Something unusual was happening. There was no Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs approval of the council’s amended Official (Land Use) Plan forthcoming after nine long months. In partnership the municipality and developer appealed the delay to OMB and once again the Shoreline Stewardship Association of Cloud Bay and Little Trout Bay appealed the situation in the president’s name (mine).

Anxious residents raised funds and looked to the OMB hearing, finally to be held locally in June. Each expert planner presented his case, biologists testified, five residents testified and in an open portion of the hearing representatives from the Ontario Naturalists, U.S. National Wildlife Federation, Thunder Bay Field Naturalists, Ducks Unlimited and Bob Olsgard from the Lake Superior Alliance spoke.

The OMB Chair’s written words in his decision ten weeks later show that environmental protection was our strong suit. “Environmental considerations played a very significant role in this hearing, therefore, the Board embarks on the land use and environmental context which together with the policy context shaped the proposal, influenced the testimonies to the Board and ultimately shaped the Board’s consideration of the proposal and its decision.”

Allan Harris, acknowledged as an expert in evaluating wetlands in Northern Ontario, testified for the developer and municipality; he dealt primarily with the land-based area. He recommended 15 mitigations to protect the wetland. The word “minimize” was glaring as linked to disturbance of migratory wildlife, disturbance of vegetation and soil, area of septic field within the wetland boundary, and area of paved surfaces. The use of “should” and “where ever possible” also stood out; our protest letters had characterized these as immeasurable “weasel words”. It was also suggested that boaters and “seadoos” would be “discouraged” in the wetland; we had argued this would be impossible to enforce.

Dr. Pat Chow-Fraser (Wetland Research Project, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario) was our standard bearer. She is acknowledged as a wetland specialist and has extensive research experience on the Cloud Bay Wetlands. Her testimony on the aquatic aspect of the wetland was key to our victory. She attested to the vertical and symbiotic relationship between the emergent and submergent plants and various plankton. She identified Cloud Bay as an extremely high quality wetland; among the top 5 of over 70 wetlands sampled around the Great Lakes during three summers, including 2001. Under cross-examination, Mr. Harris concurred with the report prepared by Dr. Chow-Fraser.

The Ontario government planner testified that all provincial requirements on land use policy could be met, however the Natural Resources planner insisted under fire of cross-examination that negative impact would occur, that boating could not be regulated, and she agreed with the biologists that incremental damage would occur over a prolonged period.

The OMB Chair wrote a final assessment, which denied approval of the Neebing council’s amended Official (Land Use) Plan to accommodate commercial zoning for the trailer park. It stated that “… persuasive to the Board was the fact that the proposal was not compatible with what was acknowledged as a pristine environment. An environment that is unique on the North shores of Lake Superior. An environment that must be protected from harm. An environment that must not be put at risk. ”


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.