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The spotted history of Oshawa’s Harbour Lands

 

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

It’s a beast that Oshawa council has kept in chains. Tethered inside a dark room deep inside city hall, and now, it’s gotten loose.

It’s now bearing down on council with each passing day, and a nearly $5-million price tag is hanging around its neck.

Backed into a corner with nowhere to go, they’ve thrown up their hands and asked for more time, hoping the beast will back off; not lash out and bite off their crossed fingers.

harbour lands field (web)

The 23 acre plot of the city’s harbour lands as seen from Harbour Road. The site is divded into the southeast corner lot, a small chunk at 1609 Simcoe Street South and the West Wharf. (Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express).

Visions for a perfect waterfront

By today’s standards, a municipality handing over prime waterfront land to the federal government could be seen as the equivalent to chopping off one’s legs. However, in 1966, that’s exactly what Oshawa did, transferring 61 acres of land along what is now Simcoe Street South and Harbour Road over to the Crown.

Over the next 40 years, the groundwork for the Oshawa Port was put in place, but large swaths of land continued to go unused.

Then, in 2006, the city made it clear it wanted the land back, and when a rail spur was announced on the property, Oshawa took the Crown, CN and the Oshawa Harbour Commission (the precursor to the Oshawa Port Authority) to court.

To avoid the mud slinging and egregious legal costs that surely would have followed such a court case, the trio came to an agreement.

The settlement agreement was signed in 2010, and thus the beast was born. However, it was a young pup with no teeth.

The federal government agreed to not only pour $9.2 million into the environmental clean up of large chunks of the land, but also put more than $10 million into moving their port operations from the west wharf over to the east wharf to better facilitate a people-friendly port in Oshawa.

“It’s the last available space on the north side of Lake Ontario to do something really big, and we’re only going to get one opportunity here,” says Mayor John Henry.

In total, 48 acres of land was returned to the city in the agreement in five separate chunks – all, save for one, are east of Simcoe Street South and south of Harbour Road. A small 4.5 acre site sits north of Harbour Road.

The remaining sections are divided into a 20.5-acre section known as the Marina Lands, and the remaining 23 acres that abuts Simcoe Street is divided into the southeast corner lot, a small lot at 1609 Simcoe St. S. and finally the West Wharf.

The final product called for by the settlement agreement paints a beautiful picture for Oshawa’s waterfront: the marina lands, cleaned up and converted into a public marina where Oshawa’s seafarers can come and go as they please; the southeast corner and West Wharf converted into green space where citizens can walk, bike and play on paved trails surrounded by the natural charm of the waterfront.

And this isn’t just council’s dream – it’s a requirement.

If council doesn’t make this dream come true by January 2017, it could quickly turn to a nightmare as, under the settlement agreement, they will pay up to $4.2 million to the crown for noncompliance.

harbour lands gate (web)

A gate blocks the entrance to 1609 Simcoe Street South, the smallest chunk of land given back to the city as part of the harbour lands. (Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express).

First signs of trouble

Following the penning of the settlement agreement, the feds quickly began their multi-million dollar effort to clean up nearly 50 acres of land going back to the city. Oshawa didn’t take ownership of any land until the cleanup efforts were complete.

The city acquired the chunk north of Harbour Road almost immediately in 2010, and then received the 23-acre plots of the southeast corner and West Wharf in 2012.

However, cleanup efforts on the Marina Lands faced continuous delays. When it was clear the Crown could not complete their maid duties by the initial deadline of August 2011, Oshawa granted them a more than two-year extension to September 2013.

Finally, in November 2013, Oshawa council took back the final section of land in the settlement agreement, and the clock began to tick.

With the land in hand, Oshawa only needed to take one final step to begin fulfilling redevelopment, and it turns out, that step is a sticky one.

harbour lands west wharf (web)

Oshawa Creek running through the chunk of land known as the West Wharf. (Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express).

Languishing with levels of government

As a final stamp of approval on the lands, the settlement agreement required the city complete a provincial record of site condition (RSC) to ensure the land met provincial standards as well.

In 2014, the city retained XCG Consultants to complete the work, setting aside a budget of $438,000 for the environmental testing and monitoring that would follow.

At that time, it was believed the RSC could be completed without a hitch as provincial environmental standards were not as strict as the federal government’s. However, it wasn’t so simple.

Since the beginning of the attempts to complete the RSC, the provincial standards have surpassed the federal government’s and continuous back and forth between the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) and XCG has led to more studies, more reports and more money.

“Work completed during each stage of project to date has taken more effort than anticipated,” reads the most recent report from XCG, received by the city at the end of November.

Along with the rising environmental standards, XCG was forced to work through last winter, facing extreme cold and frozen earth, making further groundwater and soil testing difficult. The work is also made more sensitive by the fact that the lands are adjacent to the Oshawa Creek Coast Wetland Complex, a provincially significant wetland.

The additional work and delays has expended the entire budget council set aside for the RSC, and to complete it, XCG has asked for an additional $160,000.

The additional funds, to be used for the drilling of an additional well on the site along with revisions to existing plans to reflect the further studies, could push the budget to $648,500.

“This is simply doing our due diligence to make sure that we’re protecting the interests of our residents and at the same time thinking about that big picture,” Henry said.

Council granted XCG the additional funds on Monday.

According to the city report on the matter, Oshawa has a green grant in the amount of $194,000 from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) for the cleanup of the harbour lands, which they will receive once the RSC is completed. This grant is slated to be used to cover the additional costs.

Now all council needs is the additional time.

harbour lands marina (web)

A gate blocks the entrance from Harbour Road to the Marina lands. (Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express).

Fingers crossed

With the delays in the completion of the RSC, for Oshawa to complete the work required under the settlement agreement by the original 2017 deadline would be nothing short of a miracle.

For that reason, they’re asking the federal government to allow them until October 2018 to complete the work.

It’s a “we scratched your back, now scratch ours” situation after Oshawa allowed the Crown extensions with its cleanup work back in 2011.

“The federal government had, on three occasions, problems with what they were doing and asked the municipality for the extension,” Henry says.

Henry says he believes the feds will grant the extension.

“In my heart, they’ll do the right thing,” Henry says. “This isn’t an issue that we’ve created. This is an issue of process and when you’re trying to make the world a much cleaner and safer place, there’s things that happen and it gets delayed.”

Despite the mayor’s feelings, it would appear some councillors want to prepare for the worst.

With budget time just around the corner, councillors are looking to have funds set aside for work at the harbour in case the extension isn’t granted.

“When I start looking at a project and it’s supposed to be done by a certain day, I think we have to have those funds available,” Councillor Doug Sanders says.

This year, $500,000 for the harbour lands was deferred from the budget, deemed unaffordable. The same thing was recommended at the start of 2016 budget deliberations.

A motion from Councillor Amy England to include those funds in a batch of time-sensitive capital projects failed.

“(We) have a buffer here,” said Councillor Nester Pidwerbecki, adding they could all speculate on the federal government’s decision, but any debate was fruitless until a response was received.

According to Paul Ralph, the city’s commissioner of development services, they “hope to hear rather quickly.”

Despite the delays and the unknown, Henry remains hopeful.

“It’s Christmas time. Maybe the federal government’s got some infrastructure dollars that they’ll give us towards cleaning up some of the environmental problems that we’ve had,” he says.

And he remains steadfast that this isn’t a matter of poor organization, the beast most definitely has not snuck up on them.

“It’s not bad planning,” he says. “It’s just unfortunately the other levels of government maybe move a little slower than the municipal levels of government.”