Golf course and conservation don't mix

A proposal from a private golf course developer before the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority regarding a joint venture should have taxpayers concerned. There has been little public debate about a fundamental shift about to take place as the current board gets ready to go in a drastically different direction.
A company called EnviroGolf is seeking to create an environmentally-friendly golf course on a parcel of land owned by the Ganaraska up in Manvers Township. The main players of the company include David Crombie, former Tory MP and head of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust and David Carter, a planning consultant and former executive director of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, along with several others including a golf pro, a contractor and a lawyer. It wants to form a partnership with the Ganaraska as a means of generating revenue for both parties.

The company is working with two proposals, one here and another near Peterborough. It hopes to enter into similar agreements with some of the other 38 conservation authorities in Ontario.

Thanks to Tory funding cutbacks, the Ganaraska is searching for money. Starting in 1995, the province has slashed about 75 per cent of its grants, going from about $400,000 to around $100,000 in 1999. This has been done with great pain, but minimal impact on services, much to the credit of the authority’s board. It has taken some innovative approaches to generating revenue. But it is not enough to keep the authority viable.

Board chairman Larry Hall, a councillor from Port Hope, says it is only common sense the board look at EnviroGolf’s proposal. He argues the golf course will use only one per cent of the total 11,000-acres of land owned by the Ganaraska. He figures, if it must take on projects like a golf course to save the remaining holdings, then it is a good deal for taxpayers. In fact, he wants to see another four per cent developed in some kind of way in the future to generate sufficient revenue to keep the authority strong enough to maintain the remaining 95 per cent.

This five per cent solution strays far away from the founding principles of the Ganaraska. It was the second conservation authority started in the province back in 1946 and was the first watershed to be studied. And, it can be said the entire conservation movement in Ontario was born here. It seems like only yesterday when Queen Elizabeth came to Cobourg to open James Cockburn Park in 1974. It was not long ago when the authority stepped in to save Ball’s Mill in Baltimore. Those were the days when preservation and conservation were paramount.

But this is no longer the case. Cash strapped and under fire, the authority defends its actions by saying its role is to manage resources and have them put to their best use, including a golf course.

True or not, it is a policy that deserves public debate.

Instead, the authority has held in-camera meetings, some with representatives from EnviroGolf. It has attacked one of its own board members, Hamilton Township Councillor Murray Weppler, after he went public about the golf course. Hall and the board have tried to have Weppler removed for his actions. While politician like don’t need defending (he has plenty of experience handling himself in a scrap), he certainly must be praised for his efforts. Without him, none of this would have been up for debate until it was too late. The public also deserves full, clear information rather than bombast.

This is the first venture of its kind for the authority and, if anything, it should be totally transparent. So far it has done nothing to instill confidence in the board’s ability to be open and forthcoming. Quite the contrary. It appears major policy changes are made behind closed doors without thorough public consultation.

Hall defends his actions saying anyone can write the authority or appear at one of its meetings. But this is not the right approach. Hall, a long-time defender of social injustice, knows better. He knows when the system is not playing fair. And this is one of those times.

A special ad hoc committee, consisting of environmentalists, the public, politicians and staff, should travel to each member municipality to consult with taxpayers regarding the five per cent solution. This is the thin edge of the wedge and people who want to save these public lands and protect the environment should be out in full force.

Meanwhile, EnviroGolf should not be pre-judged. Once the five per cent solution has full public endorsement, then the issue of the golf course should also get a full airing, not just in Manvers. Golf courses can have a detrimental impact on an ecosystem. EnviroGolf has a unique proposal, which deserves careful examination. Until all the information is on the table, everyone must be patient. However, the authority doesn’t serve itself, the public’s interest, or EnviroGolf’s interest, by mismanaging this debate. Back to the drawing board.

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