Michael Erland (left) and Mike Westley. Photo by Glen Gower

Property values drained by wetland designation

(ABOVE: Michael Erland (left) and Mike Westley, neighbours on Flewellyn Road.)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Stittsville is in the midst of change. What was once a small town community that was a gathering place for area farmers is now developing at breakneck speed. As residents adjust to this growth, so too must the natural environment of the area.

One of the notable changes is to the region’s network of streams and wetlands. Landowners with property just west of town have seen a rise in the amount of water on their land during a period that has coincided with Stittsville’s expansion.

Wetlands have been described as “a lung of the earth”.  They play an important ecological role but are constantly in flux due to a variety of natural and human causes. For the past several weeks I’ve been interviewing a variety of landowners, experts and public officials to learn more about what’s changing the water in this area, and how these changes are affecting the environment and the community.

In Part 1, we meet Michael Earland and Mike Westley.  They’re neighbours on Flewellyn Road and they’ve seen water levels steadily rise on their properties for years, to the point where parts of their land were identified as “Provincially Significant Wetland” (PSW).  

Jock River Watershed
Most of the land west of Stittsville is part of the Jock River watershed, which empties into the Rideau River. Map from the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority.

 

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MICHAEL ERLAND BOUGHT HIS 49-ACRE PROPERTY ON FLEWELLYN ROAD NEAR CONLEY ROAD IN 2002.  He built his home there and planned to develop the eastern side of his land as a small residential community of about a dozen homes.

The water level has increased so much on his property that in 2005 it was identified as part of a new  “Provincially Significant Wetland” (PSW), effectively halting any development or land use, and significantly reducing the land’s value.  Property that was once used as pasture for cows is now home to ducks and beavers.

He tried to sell the land, but nobody wanted to buy it because of the PSW designation.

“As soon as people find out, they say ‘I’m not going near that’,” he says.

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ERLAND’S NEIGHBOUR MIKE WESTLEY HAS OWNED HIS LAND SINCE THE 1970S. Westley says nearby land that he used to be able to drive across can now only be crossed by canoe. He’s built a berm around his property to keep it from flooding.

Westley is the president of the Goulbourn Landowners Association.  They released a position paper a few years back titled “Wetland Designation Problems” that details their objections to the PSW designation process.

His property was deemed PSW by the city at the same time as Erland’s, but he fought successfully to have the designation removed.  Westley blames a recent heart attack on all the stress he’s endured during the process. He continues to work with other landowners to try to solve the water issue in the area.

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WHERE IS ALL THE WATER COMING FROM?  Erland and Westley say that whatever is happening with the water, it’s not natural.  They put most of the blame on inadequate drainage infrastructure and ongoing quarry operations along Jinkinson Road.

There are several factors contributing to the increase in water. A city report from 2010 blamed “changes to subwatershed boundaries related to ditching on private property”, new residential development, aggregate resource operations (quarries), Highway 7 development, a gas pipeline, and “significant” beaver activity. Seasonal and yearly environmental changes play a role as well: rainfall, snowfall, and changing temperatures, for example.

Erland and Westley have been focused on PSW’s for nearly 10 years.  Around 2004, a development proposal at 6851 Flewellyn Road triggered a review of all the land in the area.  The development never went through (the city ended up buying the land for $1.00 in 2009), but as a result of the review, land on about 60 nearby properties was designated as PSW by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

Some of the landowners, including Westley, had their land re-evaluated and got the designation removed.  A group of landowners along Flowing Creek on Fernbank and Flewellyn, including Erland, still have the designation on their property.

In 2006, Erland and Westley were among 19 area landowners to petition the City of Ottawa to build a municipal drain in the area that would ensure proper water flow and proper maintenance.

Over time, creeks and ditches tend to fill up with dirt, garbage and beaver dams that can impede water flow.  The city is only responsible for maintaining ditches and culverts along roads and on other property that it owns.  Most of Upper Flowing Creek and other watercourses in the area flow through private property, so it’s up to private landowners to ensure they’re kept clean. Some land has been abandoned, and some landowners are more vigilant than others about cleaning out the dams that pop up from time to time.

The municipal drain project would have created a city-owned drain through private the property.  The original estimated cost for the work was around $250,000, but it skyrocketed to over $1.6-million for the drain, plus another $1.8-million for new culverts. Private landowners would have been on the hook to cover $1.2-million of that cost.

The landowners balked at the idea, in part because of the price tag, but also because they thought the city should bear all of the responsibility for the drainage infrastructure, given that the source of the extra water comes from areas further north.

(For more background on the debate over the municipal drain, you should read the minutes from this meeting in 2010.)

The municipal drain project did not go ahead. Instead, an agreement was reached to have the private landowners clean ditches on their own properties, and have the city maintain ditches and culverts on property that it owns along local roads.  The city would delay formally designating lands as PSW in the Official Plan for five years, but establish a special “Flewellyn Special Study Area”.  After five years, in 2016, the land in the study area would re-evaluated to see if it still qualified as PSW.

The areas enclosed by the bold line are part of the Flewellyn Special Study Area.
The areas enclosed by the bold line are part of the Flewellyn Special Study Area.

 

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Erland points out a culvert on Fernbank Road.  Below: Culverts along Flewellyn Road.
Erland points out a culvert on Fernbank Road. Below: Culverts along Flewellyn Road.

 

I MEET ERLAND AND WESTLEY ON A BRISK SATURDAY IN NOVEMBER ON JINKINSON ROAD. They take me on a tour of the area, making stops along Fernbank and Flewellyn to have a look at municipal ditches and culverts they say are causing a lot of the problems.

Erland says that while landowners have done their part and cleaned their ditches, the city hasn’t done enough maintenance on their infrastructure. Without proper maintenance, water will keep flooding his property, and prevent him from getting the PSW designation removed.

“They haven’t upheld their portion of the deal, yet the clock is still ticking,” he says.

He says culverts along Flewellyn are inadequate. “It’s not wide enough for water to pass,” he says.

A 2011 Ontario Municipal Board decision referenced a consultant’s drainage study that found “the original drainage area had increased from 75 hectares to 720 hectares through diversions of flow”, and that some culverts were sumerged, “demonstrating past better drainage and less standing water”. The study found that water pumped from quarries upstream contributes to the water flow, and channel obstructions downstream reduced the capacity of culverts.

Derrick Moodie, a manager with the city’s rural services department, says that the city has done work on the ditches and culverts over the past several years.

“In a perfect world, the municipal drain project would have gone ahead, and it would have resulted in an engineered solution from the top of the watershed to the bottom of the watershed. It would have ensured legal and adequate outlet,” he says.  “From the city’s perspective there were drainage works done, even though they weren’t exactly the ones that were planned (had the municipal drain been approved).”

He says the city has no plans to make changes to the drainage infrastructure in the area, and says residents can call 3-1-1 to report issues.  City crews will respond to requests on a case-by-case basis.

“Typically a municipal drain sets us up for being proactive on an ongoing basis.  Without that municipal drain, we would be more on the side of the reactive, responding to concerns,” he says.”To revive the municipal drain would be something that we would be looking to the residents to take on.”

Westley says the landowners have no interest in petitioning for a municipal drain unless the City is ready to cover the costs.

“The property owners are not the problem,” says Westley. ”The property owners do not create the water.  They have the water being dumped onto them.” He’s referring to the various factors upstream – quarries, Highway 7, residential development – that he says are sending more water towards property in the south.

For the past few months the City has been using sensors to monitor water levels at eight locations along creeks, streams and ditches in the area. Measurements are taken in 15 minute increments, and the data will be used to create a hydrological model of the area.

Once analysed, the data will be part of a report to be presented at a public meeting in early 2015, according to Dr. Nick Stow, a biologist with the City of Ottawa.

Locations of the city’s eight water monitoring stations, gather data to create a hydrological model of water flow in the area.
Locations of the city’s eight water monitoring stations that gather data to create a hydrological model of water flow in the area.

 

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Michael Erland on his property on Flewellyn Road. “There used to be maple trees back here.”
Michael Erland on his property on Flewellyn Road. “There used to be maple trees back here.”

 

ERLAND INVITES ME TO VISIT HIS PROPERTY. “Bring your rubber boots,” he says.

When I arrive he is exhausted. He just cleared another beaver dam from the large creek that runs across the east part of his land.  It occurs to me that he has a lot in common with beavers: he’s hard-working, stubborn, and persistent. He’s spent nearly 10 years organizing neighbours, attending public meetings, and writing letters to fight the PSW designation.

Good thing I brought my boots.  The ground on his property is soaking wet. He shows me where 100-year-old maples once stood.  They’re gone now.   Erland needs hip waders to get to the dam further back on his property. No wonder beavers like it back here.

Despite all the bureaucracy he’s had to wade through on this file, he still thinks there’s a solution to be found.

“Of course I’m optimistic, of course it’s going to get solved,” he says. “It’s a human-made problem, so there’s a way to fix it.”

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COMING UP IN THIS SERIES:

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3 thoughts on “Property values drained by wetland designation”

  1. We own 16 acres, ~9 of which is PSW. It means lowered taxes. For the 9-acre section we pay <$100 in property taxes, as long as we promise not to change the land. We bought it knowing this was the situation, though.
    This must be awfully frustrating. Local landowners are always upset when the government can interfere like this. It is difficult to balance wetland protection with property owner's rights.

  2. In west Goulbourn much of the wet is due to the industrial waste water generated along the 417. It is dumped on the neighbours to the south, onto fields that used to grow potatoes in the 1950s.

    Do I need designation by the city, or the OMB? I have managed my property since the 1950s together with its damp corner which has 80 foot high trees on it, even though they now have wet feet, due to designs by others to dump waste water instead of leading the water to an appropriate outfall, into a river, such as the Jock River at Richmond. Trans Canada pays tax to the city, and so does every industry along 417 precisely to cover costs to provide infrastructure to those valuable clients. So why are we being flooded ?

    In addition it has been noted that wetland fanatics are at work. Trans Canada pipeline has cleaned their drain at their expense some years ago, but the drain has been blocked by many large rocks in the creek. That is not beavers work !

    Also, a “temporary” forest road on the same gas line property near the compressor station has a “temporary” section of gas pipe (12″) used as a culvert which cannot possibly handle the industrial water flow, which requires at least a three foot culvert. The gas company is reluctant to move on the issue without satellite pictures from the 1960 as proof that they can’t afford to do the work on their property. Meanwhile our lands, and the gas line property are now wet all summer, affecting the hay harvest on both properties. It is a huge issue which can only be solved by simply removing the pipe with a backhoe. It would take 15 minutes to do the work after two years of management input ! The expense does not lie with the backhoe ! The forest was harvested years ago and someone was paid (I hope) to take the pipe out of the creek at that time. New forest is not growing in the mud as is in any case. The pipe is no longer needed! If anyone has a backhoe maybe we can convince Calgary to give the nod for entering the property and free the creek to what it used to do of its own accord. Gravity will assist!

    Note that it takes a three foot culvert to handle that water flow along Flewellyn. The city even removed their culvert at their property because it could not handle the flow, causing the creek to wash over the pavement repeatedly. You can look at the culvert size that was failing its intent – it was left by the city for everyone’s inspection! Right beside the driveway.

    Obviously the city engineers hired the wrong consultants. Now we are even talking about a PhD Bioligist to be in charge of water management. I think all folks overrun by that industrial waste water will need an awesome pile of luck.

    Speaking of water management the city has three wells on their property, one was noted to be overflowing seasonally! Or is someone near the 417 crowd injecting waste water into the ground? If the wells are not in use as per design intent does Ontario not have rules to plug unused wells? This may sound suspicious but I have observed that my drain (creek) gets sudden iron mud bubbling out from the ground and placing heavy pollution into the creek bed.
    I had Capital come and drill a well 160 feet deep. It pumped nice clean water for about 2 years, and one Christmas I treated the family to an iron filter to clean the iron mud out of the drinking water. The filter is now losing the battle, my tap water wants to be brown. Some thing is disturbing the underworld as well as the good earth above!

    We know that the Hazeldean Road shopping paradise needed parking, and so did the Corel Centre. It is amazing what engineers can do to give water a place to flow and where customers can park where ducks used to mate. But dumping industrial waste water on unsuspecting land owners is somewhat akin to foul play. I bet those designated wet lands will come off the balance sheet at the OMB in 20 years, and new wetlands will be sought further away to keep the balance sheet balanced in Toronto of all places! What about local management! We do know our backyards!

  3. Regarding the water monitoring stations it is noticed that water levels in the creek along Flewellyn is unusually low now, much lower then when cars skidded into the creek in March bringing police, fire, ambulance and tow trucks to pull almost totally submerged cars out of the creek. Did someone stop the pumps at the 417 quarry complex ?

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