By Chad Ingram
Haliburton County councillors are calling another special meeting to further discuss the county’s controversial draft shoreline preservation bylaw, after a discussion during a Jan. 13 council meeting that addressed misinformation about the draft bylaw being circulated in the community.
The bylaw, which aims to protect lake health by maintaining and re-naturalizing shorelines, would restrict site alteration and the removal of vegetation within 30 metres of the high-water mark around water bodies. It has stirred some controversy in the county among waterfront property owners, as well as members of the community’s construction and landscaping industries.
“I’d like to begin this discussion by saying, I’m a little bit disappointed, I’m more than a little bit disappointed, to see the misinformation that has been put in advertisements in the newspaper, in letters to the editor, the false information that’s been spread though various methods … through the internet, and through Facebook” said Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor and County Warden Liz Danielsen. “I’m also disappointed to see the number of people who are willing to cast aspersions about us and our work, about the thought that this is being sprung upon them, and we’re doing this under the cloak of secrecy. This is a topic that’s been under discussion for two-and-a-half years and longer, and if you’re just realizing it and are willing to complain, then I think you should probably take a moment to look into the details of this.”
“I would like council as part of this discussion to talk about how we might respond to this misinformation or respond to ads that suggest we’re going to spend three quarters of a million dollars on this next year,” Danielsen continued. “That’s just one of the concerns that I’ve got. It is unfortunate that people feel they need to start calling us names and giving members of council a difficult time.”
Danielsen said numerous emails have been received regarding the draft bylaw, many of them positive, but said many, she thought, were reactive to misinformation being spread.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts noted that of all the emails and Facebook posts she’s seen, she’s received just one phone call from a resident asking for information on what’s happening with the draft bylaw.
“A lot of the emails are pertaining to the fact that because we are in a pandemic … is this the right time to be doing public consultation,” Roberts said. The county is collecting public feedback on the draft bylaw through its website at https://www.haliburtoncounty.ca/en/living-here/shoreline-preservation.aspx, or planning staff and councillors can be reached by telephone. There is also going to be a Zoom-based public meeting on Feb. 24.
“It seems to be such a divisive topic, and it’s basically you’re either for or against, and I truly believe that there’s a middle ground,” Roberts said. “Everybody cares about the lake health.”
Roberts said she was in favour of having a third-party facilitator gather input from interested parties, “because right now I truly feel it’s off the rails.”
Minden Hills Mayor Brent Devolin said as far as he can tell, most of the emails council is receiving on the matter are regionally driven, coming out of Dysart. Devolin said he wanted to see the county’s input process continue.
“COVID’s going to be with us for years,” he said, ”and I would arguably say at the end of this term of council, and for us to delay it because of COVID, I don’t think it will get dealt with in this term of council, and I truly think that would be a mistake.”
Devolin also said that any bylaw was a living document, and that changes could be made in the future, if so required.
“What we’ve put in place allows people to have input from wherever they are,” Danielsen said.
“There’s no question this issue is contentious and people have their heels dug in,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt. Moffatt said she’d like to see more refinement of the questions the county was putting to the public through its website. “We have a very narrow window to do it well, and do it correctly, and I’m not sure that we’re there yet,” she said.
“Contrary to some opinions that I’m hearing out on the street, I’m not in anyone’s back pocket, so I want to qualify my comments going forward with this,” said Dysart et al Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy. Kennedy said he didn’t believe the draft bylaw was yet in a form where it should be taken to the public for input. “I fully endorse a step back,” he said, “answer some of the questions that Councillor Moffatt has raised, as far as what the process is.”
“I feel we have lost the public trust on both sides of this issue,” Kennedy continued. “… we need to take a step back, and the province and the feds have done it in other ways, for example a royal commission, take a look at it with an arbitrary, open mind from both sides. My position is step back and regroup.”
Moffatt had concerns about introducing a third-party body. “Who would be on that, and what would it look like?” Moffatt said. “ … The question is, how do you not leave somebody out? There’s a lot of misunderstanding, because we’ve been told that a certain number of lake associations are in support. Now, the lake associations are eating each other alive from the inside out. I can tell you personally, I get information from the public, and I believe our job is to get information from the public, and then debate each other, not debate the public.”
Danielsen said very few of the complaint-driven emails she’s received have been specific regarding what the concerns about the bylaw are. She reiterated council has not said it would pass the bylaw by any specific date.
“This is not a bylaw that’s complete, it’s a draft,” she said. “And we’re consulting people and gathering information to help us make the correct document.”
Roberts said she’d been approached by a number of people who’d be interested in being part of some kind advisory committee. “Would it not be something that we appoint as an ad hoc committee of county council, and it would be at our discretion of who we feel would be best represented … of interested parties, and professional parties, of scientists, of environmental engineers and that type of thing, and we could create, who we feel would be best on that advisory committee,” Roberts said.
Moffatt reiterated her hesitancy about creating that kind of group. “In the beginning, there was some talk about some kind of ad hoc committee,” Moffatt said. “And I’ll be very frank, some of the really crappy things that were done by some of the people in the community who purported to want to be on that ad hoc committee, including threats and withdrawals of business, and just some really horrible things in the community … I wouldn’t support any of those people being involved in any of this, because they’re incredibly biased, they’ve made some incredible missteps in the community, have generated a lot of unnecessary infighting. I think ultimately it’s our job as the people who were elected to listen to the public. Our problem now, I think, it’s all the noise that’s out there. We can’t address the misinformation without a dedicated information campaign, and we can’t do that without dedicated resources and time, out of what budget? And so I don’t know that going to some sort of consulting group is going to assuage the concerns that are out there, because there will just be accusations of, all your people were handpicked.”
Danielsen said she was not comfortable with an ad hoc group being led by someone outside of the county government. “I think that that just splits things down the middle,” Danielsen. “This is the group that’s responsible for making the decisions. I have some concerns about that, but that’s something we can talk about again.”
Councillors agreed that a special meeting would be scheduled for further discussion, and it will take place Jan. 27 at 1 p.m.