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Editorial: Wetland? What odds

The drip, drip, drip you sometimes hear isn’t just the sound bog water makes as it slowly makes its way downhill. It’s also the endless pressure on municipal councils to make zoning changes to benefit those who want to build — even in areas like wetlands.

In St. John’s, city council is looking at a plan to take 17.5 acres of wetlands near Torbay Road out of the Open Space Reserve (OR) zone, and allow the construction of 95 new homes.

According to city documents, “In 1993, the city designated this area as a significant wetland. However, based on a recent wetland report conducted by the City of St. John’s and CBCL Ltd., council has agreed to consider removing the wetland protection from this land.”

It’s interesting what constitutes a measure of value. According to the proponents of the project, the wetland’s significance seems to be determined by the fact that there aren’t rare species present: “The subject wetland appears to be providing a modest function for provision of habitat, with elevated values due to the surrounding urban and suburban context. While it does potentially provide habitat in the general sense for a variety of species, it is not considered to be a ‘significant’ wetland in terms of providing habitat for species at risk.”

Runoff from the lots and the remaining wetland would be collected in a “naturalized wetland stormwater pond”; homes backing directly onto the remaining wetland would be slab-on-grade, presumably to keep from having basements that flood from the high water table.

Details about the plan seem to have faced a fair amount of scepticism from city staff: “The applicant engaged Stantec Inc. to prepare a report on the wetland and whether it could be developed. That report concluded that the wetland could be developed, and recommended that lands elsewhere in the river system be set aside to compensate for the land lost to this proposed development. The report and the matter were referred to the City’s Environmental Advisory Committee in 2012, which did not support the finding about the wetland not being significant.”

Staff pointed out there’s also the question of those who already live in the area. “People who built or bought houses in the Penney Crescent neighbourhood did so with the expectation that there was a nearby wetland zoned OR and reserved from development. While rezonings do occur and conditions change, this expectation should be considered.”

Maybe it’s just another piece of swampy ground. But it’s also part of the natural system that contains and controls groundwater, limits flooding in heavy rain, and protects those downstream.

In St. John’s, the city is already facing the need for millions of dollars of work to prevent drainage-related flooding along just one urban river, Leary’s Brook.

And it raises the question: how many times do we have to listen to the same tune?

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