Until January 2021, my previous thirteen years had been devoted to defeating a “NASCAR-like” car-racing track complex in Fort Erie. It was to have been built by a specially created corporation, the Canadian Motor Speedway (CMS). The project collapsed after its backers in the Arabian Peninsula pulled out, but important lessons can be learned from our thirteen-year struggle, which I will review here.
The CMS proposal was to have been built on 827 acres of agriculturally zoned land. While most of this area is still farmed for wheat and soybeans, about a third of it is natural habitat. These 177 acres include provincially protected wetlands, forests, and flood-plains regenerating into woodlands.
Several threatened species, such as the Meadowlark, Bobolink and the Wood Thrush, live on the CMS lands. The site is the headwaters of Millers Creek, which supports a healthy population of warm-water fish such as Northern Pike and Muskellunge.
The headwaters of Millers Creek was discovered as a spring gushing from the ground through field work by ecologist Michael Dickman. It was the proposed site of future toilets for thousands of campers on the CMS grounds.
During the 13-year battle over the CMS, environmental details about of the site were difficult to obtain. Despite the repressive atmosphere of the torturous process, it was revealed that the site is provincially recognized deer wintering habitat. The Fort Erie Planning Department disclosed this information this year in connection with the proposal for the shopping centers, but it had been concealed during the long CMS debate.
Ominously, the CMS proposal had not been announced in Canada, but in a dictatorship: the United Arab Emirates. (UAE) The announcement was made by then Ontario Minister of International Trade Sandra Pupatello in Dubai on October 8, 2008. She expressed excitement over the support of the CMS by the Arabian-based Bayt Al Mal corporation. From Dubai, Pupatello issued the Ontario government’s blessing on the CMS. She stated that the foreign investor Bayt Al Mal, “did their homework, recognized Ontario’s tremendous potential, and made a wise decision to invest here.”
During the Speedway celebrations in Dubai, the federal government was reviewing a plan to temporarily relax the ban on leaded fuels in racing cars. The exemption was approved and continues to this day. Globalization, as promoted by the petro tyrannies of the Arabian Peninsula, continually obstructs stronger environmental regulations. But in 2007 the actual NASCAR in the United States banned leaded fuel after drivers’ blood had elevated lead levels.
In Fort Erie the Concerned Citizens for Greater Fort Erie (CCGFE) proposed amendments required for the proposal to proceed under Canadian law. The group hired a lawyer and a land use planner for expert testimony at an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing. CMS publicity materials and their expert witnesses claimed the site was not being farmed.
Critics of the CMS proposal suspected that it was not actually for a racing track but for a shopping center in disguise. Indeed, a shopping center was planned for the adjacent lands, but no permits were supposed to be awarded until construction was underway on the planned 65,000 seat stadium. Three adjacent farmers appealed to the OMB, anticipating vandalism and rowdiness from onsite campers at racing events. Eventually, these farmers withdrew their objections, expecting that the CMS would eventually purchase their lands. But I was the agent for another organization that did oppose CMS: Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS) and I had to face lawyers for the CMS, the Town of Fort Erie, and the Regional Municipality of Niagara. From the experience of that OMB hearing, I learned a little about what environmentalists endure when they oppose dictators. Although I lived for over two weeks in the basement of my allies, I could not be seen with them in public where we could be seem by supporters of the project. I was driven to the OMB hearing but dropped off to walk the final quarter of a mile.
At the last minute, we discovered an environmental impact study in the basement where I was staying. It showed that the Speedway would cut across a significant linear forest designated as the East Hedgerow. An arm of the track would destroy a woodland that provides breeding habitat for several bird species, including the rose-breasted grosbeak, the Baltimore oriole, yellow warbler, the goldfinch, and the northern flicker.
At that time, the OMB procedure called for on-site visits by ecological experts of all parties.
We went to lands where the CMS claimed they would plant a forest to make the project “carbon-neutral.” I discovered that these were actually protected wetlands of Frenchman’s Creek and were, without any help from CMS, naturally becoming a pin oak-domi-nated woodland. Nevertheless, CMS insisted it was an instrument of carbon neutrality.
The CMS investment was fostering creeping authoritarianism. One sign of it was OMB’s disqualification of PALS’s proffered land use planning expert, Dr. Hugh Gayler, then a Professor of Geography at Brock University. The then Vice-Chair of the OMB, Susan de Avellar Schiller, ruled that he “lists himself as a Member of PALS from 1996 to the present.” She ruled that he could not “be qualified as an independent expert witness while at the same time witness of an advocacy group.” Democracy is not just about voting and elections procedures but the ability of civil society groups to carry out their objectives.
PALS appealed Schiller’s approval of the Speedway to the OMB. This had some success. The then OMB Chair, Lynda Catherine Tanaka, stayed the approval, ruling that all corporations from time to time assume advocacy positions. PALS however, lost the OMB hearing that Tanaka ordered, which resulted in a ruling approving the development by member James Mackenzie, on June 6, 2013. Gayler was traumatized by Schil-ler’s ruling and has not subsequently attempted to testify in OMB proceedings, though subsequent rulings have been in favor of his position.
The three years of litigation by PALS did contribute to the demise of the Speedway since the delays coincided with a dramatic decrease in the popularity in the NASCAR type racing that the Pupatello-Faiz Accord was seeking to bring to Canada. A dramatic downsizing of stadiums of NASCAR tracks took place before the ban on Confederate flags, which Donald Trump attributed to the sport’s loss of popularity.
But CMS hired a publicist, a journalist who covered two OMB hearings and produced effective propaganda attacking PALS. This had an impact on the legislation governing OMB procedures. The car racing industry still has a fan base that’s more influential than environmentalists, especially because it is supported by Fox Television.
After the CMS’s campaign the Ontario government radically changed procedures for the successor to the OMB, the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal. (LPAT). This affected litigation over another wetland complex—a Carolinian habitat called “Thundering Waters Forest.” Like Pupatello’s Dubai Agreement, it involved a trip by a politician to deal with a dictatorship. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne journeyed to Beijing and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) endorsing this development.
After the signing of the MOU there was a LPAT hearing on Thundering Waters. In this hearing no expert witnesses could be called, let alone conduct a site visit. But the developer, a Chinese corporation GR Canada, claimed that the Thundering Waters Forest was dominated by ash trees, vulnerable to an exotic invasive species, the emerald ash borer. It was therefore important for experts not associated with the developer to visit the site to determine whether this was true.
The folly of the CMS scheme was inadvertently admitted upon its demise by the Fort Erie Planning Department, whose expert testimony helped secure its approval at hearings of the Ontario Municipal Board. Nevertheless, those planners claim that shopping centers on these lands warrant approval, for the environmental impact would be less than the air pollution, lights, and noise of the terminated CMS.
Both the CMS and the ongoing Thundering Waters battles involve local business interests, municipal governments, and the co-operation of foreign dictatorships to develop lands that had previously been protected by zoning. The lands provide habitat for several species at risk in the Carolinian life zone, the most biologically diverse biome in Canada.
These disputes show the importance of protecting the environment. Claims for carbon offsetting by planting trees need to be carefully monitored. Without flourishing environmental advocacy groups to monitor claims of forest creation, corruption and deception will lead to climate catastrophe.
John Bacher is a Canadian environmental activist living in St. Catharines.