Marcie Jacklin sees a flyway for endangered species, a significant War of 1812 battlefield, and a forest deeply tied to Indigenous history as she gazes out at the dense pocket of trees near Old Lake Erie Beach Park in Fort Erie, Ontario.
But soon, those 14.8 acres of land above the Lake Erie shoreline could become Harbourtown Village — a slice of suburbia with 86 single-family homes, 96 townhouses, and a 10-story apartment building.
Now Jacklin and Community Voices of Fort Erie, the citizens’ group she leads, are heading to a Local Planning Appeal Tribunal hearing in late April to fight the developer, Silvergate Homes, and the city of Fort Erie. .
“We’re really, really worried that some really important historical artifacts…are going missing or being destroyed,” Jacklin told CBC Hamilton.
“It’s disturbing actually…there are some things that are priceless.”
The case comes as Fort Erie and other Ontario municipalities attempt to build enough homes for a growing population.
It has been in court since late 2018 and the developer has not returned calls for an interview.
Fort Erie Mayor Wayne Redekop disputes some of the group’s claims, but said he has an open mind about the concerns.
“All they have to do is prove it.”
A group of citizens can request that the land be a heritage site
Jacklin said the citizens’ group will have Richard Feltoe, author of four books on the War of 1812, and two archaeological reports from Triggs Heritage Consulting to prove the importance of the land.
She said based on the reports, the land – which Jacklin and others call Waverly Woods – could be considered a heritage site, and the citizens’ group can apply.
Ron Williamson, founder of ASI Heritage, told CBC Hamilton that the area is “one of the richest archaeological and historical areas in the Niagara region.”
He said there was approximately 3,500 years of Aboriginal occupation nearby, and that these people would have gone to Waverly Woods in search of chert and flint to make arrowheads and spearheads.
“That’s why at this site you can, when you dig down low enough… you can find literally hundreds of artifacts per square meter. And that’s informed development in this area since about 1980.”
Williamson said remnants of Indigenous camps can be found along the shoreline south of Mather Park, and all manner of Indigenous artifacts have been found near the development site.
Williamson also said the area is close to Snake Hill, which was part of the War of 1812.
The British besieged the Americans there. ASI uncovered a cemetery at Snake Hill that led to the exhumation and repatriation of 28 American soldiers from the War of 1812.
Williamson said part of this battle took place at Waverly Woods.
He added that there was also massive development in the area which included an amusement park from the late 1800s to the 1930s.
“When people who oppose development raise the issue of heritage, it is with good reason.”
Recommendations from the AMICK report include that further evaluation be conducted in light of the artifacts found. Michael Henry, a partner at AMICK, declined to comment on the valuation.
Redekop said he was told that a more thorough assessment had been carried out and two areas of concern had been identified (one of which is in the part of the woods that will not be built on). It is not clear if the other area of concern is where the houses will be built.
Jacklin, also a leading ornithologist and conservationist, said he has seen red-headed woodpeckers – which are endangered in Canada and Ontario – nesting in the woods. She has also seen golden-winged warblers and Canada warblers – both threatened in Canada and imperiled in Ontario – migrating through the area.
That said, the development includes a portion of land that will not be built on to protect the environment and wildlife.
Jacklin said there was already clearing at Waverly Woods, but Redekop said it was actually a set up staging area (which was approved by the owner and the region) for the road construction.
Redekop said he wanted the area to be protected in the past, but did not have enough support from other advisers. Although the area now includes various vegetation buffers, a wildlife corridor and an improved storm water management pond.
Redekop said much of the area where the development is expected to occur is field.
He noted that developers are also avoiding building on part of the land to protect the environment and wildlife.
Redekop also disputed claims by the citizens’ group that the entire area is the city’s last urban forest.
Fort Erie development web page includes environmental impact from 2017 study which says “although there will be habitat loss in the northern part of the site, this area was not considered important for local fauna.”
Also on the webpage, a 2018 report from another environmental consultant suggests that red-headed woodpeckers and other birds will not be seriously affected.
The mayor keeps an open mind
Redekop said it was annoying to hear the citizens’ group say that Fort Erie was not doing enough to protect the environment.
But he keeps an open mind.
“If following the appeal, a decision is made by the [tribunal]which provides better protection for the housing estate, I can’t imagine the council wouldn’t be in favor of that.”
Redekop added that he sympathizes with environmentalists, especially as the demand for housing increases.
“There are two things we need to do as the community grows, as we manage growth: #1, protect existing neighborhoods; No. 2, protect our natural heritage.
Williamson said that raises a big question for society.
“When you stand in this place and reflect on thousands of years of use and history, how should we think of this place?”
The hearing begins on April 25.