The Battle of Malcolm's Mill

by Guy Crittenden

A heron flies up sluggishly from the edge of a millpond in Southern Ontario's Oakland Township while a breeze caresses the tips of rushes and tree stumps reflected in its green surface. A casual observer would never guess that the tranquil pond at Malcolm's Mill has been the scene of two terrible battles.

The first was in 1814 when the millpond was the site of the last fight between American and British troops on Canadian soil. The American soldiers marched north along the twisting contours of the Grand River burning every mill they encountered in order to cut off British food supplies.

But the British ambushed them at Malcolm's Mill after draining the millpond. Thinking the ground solid, the US troops marched their horses into what was really a muddy bog and became stuck. The British muskets easily picked off the Americans as they tried in vain to escape.

The second battle is occurring today and this time it's environmental combat. Once again the pond is being drained -- but to send a message, not a bullet.

Ralph and Tess Weber purchased the Malcolm's Mill property and millpond last year. They live in the converted millhouse and act as stewards over the pond, which is a "provincially significant" wetland.

Soon after they bought the property, the couple learned that the owners of an adjacent parcel of land and abandoned gravel pit had tried to develop it in 1990 as a residential subdivision. Ontario's ministries for natural resources and environment had denied the applications, saying that the water table was too high and wasn't fit for human consumption. The land was zoned for open space and was just too close to the wetland pond. But the ministries indicated they might consider a development plan if it included an Environmental Impact Study.

The Webers were also told privately that asphalt and fuel-contaminated soil from an old gas station had been deposited in the gravel pit.

In 1994, developer Taylor Whiting bought the property and ran into the same ministerial brick walls. But by 1998 numerous activities at the municipal and provincial level tilted things in his favor. These included amendments to the town's official plan and recommendations from the natural resources ministry that a communal septic system (instead of individual ones) would make development more acceptable. In a pattern that has repeated itself across Ontario since the Mike Harris government was elected in 1995, the Grand River Conservation Authority took over the local mandate of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the County government was amalgamated. The new "more efficient" bureaucracy essentially rubber stamped plans that formerly ran a gauntlet of checks and balances. It deemed that an Environmental Impact Study was no longer needed.

In March 1999 the environment ministry alerted the Brant County planning office that gasoline contamination had been discovered in ground in the vicinity of the proposed development site. Fuel-contaminated water runoff began to periodically make its way into Malcolm's millpond. Nevertheless, final approval for the subdivision was granted.

Throughout 1999 the process via which the public comments on development plans became a comedy of errors. Proper notice of meetings (such as those of the Committee of Adjustment) wasn't sent to the Webers or their neighbors. Letters from the County about rezoning and severance issues arrived after appeal deadlines had expired. Tensions blew past the boiling point at raucous public meetings where accusations were hurled about the incompetence of local planners and the corruption of the whole process. At one hearing of the Ontario Municipal Board leaders of the Six Nations Indians (whose reserve is downstream of the millpond) cited centuries-old treaties and said the entire County government was illegitimate.

The Webers say that throughout the convoluted tug-of-war between consultants, officials and politicians, a stormwater management system built for the proposed subdivision discharged into the millpond. An oily film was noticeable as well as a gasoline odor. In November 1999 the environment ministry discovered that the stormwater system had been constructed without a legally required Certificate of Approval.

The Webers came to believe that critical reports and survey maps were being withheld from them. At one point they raised the water level in the millpond to flood their land and prove their property line. This raised the water upstream and a delegation of annoyed farmers (who use the water in their operations) complained to the County.

In June 2000 the developer appeased the Webers by agreeing to certain controls to help protect the wetland and some trees. But the Webers say the oily-water runoff continues to contaminate their millpond and that the local conservation authority and provincial ministries won't stop the pollution or even acknowledge where it's coming from. They say the provincial government has abandoned the public interest and environment and has left individuals to fend for themselves against wealthy or well-connected developers who operate with little regulatory oversight. They suspect this pattern is repeating itself elsewhere.

"We've spent over $30,000 of our hard-earned money doing the government's business," says Tess Weber. "Clearly the focus of the government at all levels is on approving development at any cost."

To draw attention to the lack of concern about the pollution demonstrated by the town, the conservation authority and the provincial ministries, the Webers are draining the millpond just as the British troops did 185 years ago. It will soon be just a small creek. The outcome of the latest battle of Malcolm's Mill is unknown, but for now it certainly doesn't look like the victor will be our environment.

Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. E-mail your letters to: gcrittenden@corporate.southam.ca