Plans for a residential subdivision on Elmira’s Union Street received a welcome almost as caustic as the chemicals running underground in that part of town.
Aside from the developer, no one who spoke at a public meeting Tuesday night indicated any support for the development.
Hawk Ridge Homes hopes to build 44 single-family and semi-detached homes on a 5.5-acre site, a former apple orchard fronting on Union Street. Neighbours, including Chemtura and Sulco Chemicals, seemed less-than-enthusiastic about the proposal, however.
The chemical companies were joined by local environmentalists in calling for the land to remain a buffer zone between the industrial land and existing residential areas.
“We have to ask ourselves if this subdivision is in the best interest of the community,” said Ron Koniuch, general manager of Sulco Chemicals, noting that 15 of the 44 proposed homes fall directly within the so-called IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) zone surrounding the plant.
Dave Emerson, president of Canada Colors and Chemicals Ltd., which owns Sulco, said he is concerned that the location of the residential development puts it within the company’s worst-case scenario for a massive release of sulphuric acid.
Much the same sentiment was expressed by Chemtura’s Dwight Este, who explained its worst-case scenario – the release of ammonia – places half the subdivision within the IDLH zone.
Even in the absence of a major spill, both chemical producers foresee compatibility problems due to truck traffic, noise and the potential for odour issues.
While the company has made significant strides to reduce the number of odour complaints, Chemtura’s Este explained “there are no guarantees.”
Pointing to some of the past problems in the area, Susan Bryant of APT Environment called the proposed land use inappropriate given the risk to the health and safety of those who would live there.
Spills, fires and explosions – all of which have occurred in the past – provide the opportunity for a deadly plume to envelop the area, she said, noting that just because there are existing homes in the area doesn’t justify adding more.
“The zoning should be changed to disallow this type of development,” said Bryant, who suggested the chemical plants should buy the land to maintain the buffer zone.
Not calling for an outright halt to the project, Alan Marshall of the Elmira Environmental Hazards Team suggested a moratorium on development at the site until the issues at the nearby former Varnicolor Chemical location are resolved.
The operation at 62 Union Street was the scene of “massive dumping of chemical waste,” he said, adding there has never been a full accounting, let alone rehabilitation, of the subsurface contaminants there.
Citing a report from Waterloo Region saying the subdivision would be compatible with its surrounding, however, developer’s representative Arlene McFarlane said the project has already been well vetted.
Prior to purchasing the land, Hawk Ridge Homes had the region examine compatibility issues, recognizing the possibility of problems arising due to the proximity to industrial land.
The developer, too, wants to maintain some buffering from the industrial area – none of the homes will front on Union Street, for instance, she explained.
That explanation didn’t convince Pat McLean, chair of the Chemtura Public Advisory Committee, who challenged the thoroughness of the region’s study that deemed a residential subdivision appropriate for that site.
“This is an area with a troubled past, and increasing the density will increase the chance of problems in the future,” she said in joining the call for the buffer zone to be maintained.
Studying the reports filed by the developer and the assessment by the region will be part of the process as the township looks into the zone-change application submitted by Hawk Ridge Homes.
The zoning in place today allows for residential development. The change being sought would permit higher density, with smaller lot sizes. In either scenario, a large section at the north end of the property would remain as open space due to the floodway and flood fringe designations assigned to the drain running through the land.
The plan under consideration would see the homes developed around new access points to the land, which would likely involve the extension of Bauman and College Streets, with the main entrance from First Street rather than Union Street.
Dan Kennaley, Woolwich’s director of engineering and planning, expects his staff to face an involved process in reviewing this application for a subdivision.
Such infilling, or brownfield projects typically get preferential consideration in keeping with new provincial guidelines, but the area’s troubled environmental history will have to come into play, he said in an interview.
“The situation there might warrant us opposing the subdivision of the land itself, notwithstanding the existing residential zoning … if we thought the problem was serious enough,” he said, indicating that decision would not be made lightly, nor is it the most likely stance.
“There would have to be overwhelming evidence that there was a threat from these chemical plumes,” said Kennaley of the scenarios painted by Chemtura and Sulco Chemicals at the public meeting.
Having taken in the public comments, the township is now waiting on additional written input before beginning a detailed study of the Hawk Ridge application. A staff report will be presented to councillors at a later date, at which time the merits of the project will be discussed.