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Region's waterfront strategy doesn't hold water

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27 Apr 2018
by Allan Benner, St. Catharines Standard

Niagara's waterfront investment program has become so watered down in the past few years it can no longer accomplish what it was originally intended to do.

And St. Catharines regional Coun. Bruce Timms hopes to get the initiative back on track.

He said the program was originally proposed more than a decade ago, after lakefront properties such as the former Easter Seals Camp in Wainfleet were sold to private investors.

"There was an interest in bringing more beaches in the public realm," Timms said. "The intention as I recall was to build a fund that would have enough cash that would be able to respond when those properties came up for sale."

It was originally intended to be a reserve fund to allow the regional government to purchase lakefront property as it became available, ensuring public access to Niagara beaches, but Timms said the Region's existing waterfront investment program falls short of accomplishing that goal.

In 2012, the Region hired consultant Urban Strategies to develop a lakefront enhancement strategy, and the policy was approved in 2014.

At the time, Timms said $1-million a year was allocated to the program, which he believed would accumulate in a reserve allowing the Region to bid on waterfront properties when they become available.

"But it evolved gradually over several changes," he said. "I think I objected to these changes every time, but did not prevail."

Instead of just setting aside funds to acquire lands, council chose to also allow the fund to be used for waterfront enhancement projects. And in 2016, council voted to merge the Region's lakefront and waterfront enhancement strategies to create the existing waterfront investment program, which includes lakefront properties, as well as "every river and the Welland Canal."

Also, instead of allowing the annual allocation to accumulate within the reserve, any unspent funds were put back into general reserves.

The issue recently caught his attention when the remaining $700,000 in the fund was returned to general reserves, after roughly $300,000 was used to help fund the Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

"The most recent one kind of was over the top," he said. "When I saw that (money) going back, I realized what the changes meant from back in 2016."

Other changes to the limit the fund to waterfront enhancement projects that exceed $1-million in value, while giving an advantage to projects that include a commercial component.

"That really bothers me — the million-dollar minimum, the commercial aspect and the nonaccumulating (reserve). Those are the three key aspects that ruin the program's original goals."

Timms raised the issue during this week's planning committee meeting, asking for a report from regional planning staff identifying amendments that can be made to the policy to help it live up to its original intent.

He expects that report to be available at the next planning committee meeting.

"I hope we don't have to go to reconsideration, but it is possible," he said, referring to a vote that would require a two-thirds majority of council.

Although Timmswas not aware of any specific waterfront properties that could become available, he said the Region should have the funding readily available to bid on any properties that do become available.

"When something comes up we should be able to jump on it,"he said, adding that public access to Niagara's beaches should remain a priority for council.

St. Catharines Coun. Tim Rigby, who was St. Catharines mayor when the idea was first proposed, agreed that it may be necessary to take another look at the policy.

He said it was a good idea when it was first proposed, at a time when the region didn't have the funds available to purchase the Easter Seal Camp property — which to this day has yet to see development begin.

"But then of course you change councils, and that notion might very well have changed just enough that it should be being done, but I don't think it is," Rigby said. "I'm not sure you'll ever be able to buy waterfront property for the very little that we put in. It ought to be looked at again as to the reality of what we do want to do."

There are other ways of acquiring waterfront property.

For instance, Rigby said municipalities can also use parkland dedication requirements for new developments to acquire waterfront property.

And Timms said the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority contributes $500,000 a year to its land acquisition reserve for the purchase of property, although that program has received "flack from some regional councillors, saying that money should stay with the Region."

Timms said he might agree with those councillors if the waterfront strategy had been implemented as it was originally proposed, but "not under the new one."

Rigby said Niagara has a lot of waterfront, although most of it is privately owned.

"Trying to get some public access is and always should be an important feature to improve our quality of life," Rigby added.
Last Modified: May 09, 2018 09:44 PM
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