Rural residents in Niagara-on-the-Lake want better water services, but a regional policy may be the thing that stops them from getting it.
Currently, the region prohibits water line extensions outside urban areas. Residents in rural areas primarily get access to water through wells on their properties.
Drinking water quality, says Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa, is “probably one of the most important things a municipality needs to deliver on.”
“It just needs to be sustainable,” he said, meaning cost-efficient.
However, if there are issues with groundwater in rural areas of Niagara-on-the-Lake, he said the town should look to get “safe, quality drinking water” to residents.
“I am one person that is not afraid of connecting water services to people who really need it just because they’re outside the urban boundary.”
One of those rural residents who need it is Tony Giordano, a retired farmer. He said he’s been frustrated before by the town and region’s water line policies.
When he and his wife were ready to quit the business, they tried to sever a small portion of land from their old farm to build a new house for retiring in.
When he asked the town if he could connect the future house on Concession Seven to the town’s water line, he was told no.
“They told me that water in the rural areas is for agriculture purposes only. But because I created a residential lot, I wasn’t entitled to it.”
There are some exceptions to the region’s water line prohibitions, such as if they need to fix health-related issues, replace an existing line, connect to an urban area or for “necessary operating purposes.”
The region’s official plan says infrastructure spending should be used to “direct and support growth and development within strategic growth areas.”
This has the effect of directing development towards dense urban areas where the infrastructure exists to support it.
It also leaves rural residents with less access to municipal services, including drinking water.
“I don’t think that services should be used to control growth,” Coun. Erwin Wiens said in an interview.
He added he was “perplexed and flabbergasted” that the region would block people’s access to clean drinking water.
Wiens has argued the issue of development is a zoning issue, not a service issue.
The intention of the policy, according to regional staff, is not just to protect farmlands from being targeted for development, but to prevent the water services from being overburdened.
The region’s manager of development engineering Susan Dunsmore said water service systems in the region are designed to meet the needs of urban areas, and expansions into rural areas “would reduce the capacity in the system for the urban areas.”
The policy “works effectively” to protect the water servicing systems, said regional spokesperson Janine Tessmer.
Meanwhile, NOTL’s town spokesperson Marah Minor said the limits of the town’s water services aren’t just a result of how many customers use them but also the length and size of the water lines.
Expansion proposals, she said, need to be investigated to see if they would overburden the waterline.
By Giordano’s estimation, the nearest water line was only 100 feet from the proposed location of his future home.
And at the end of the day, he said he would be the one paying for the line extension.
This is because taxpayers offset the cost of water-line extensions in rural areas.
Minor confirmed this when she said the cost of installing a waterline can be added to a resident’s property taxes.
Giordano never built his retirement home on Concession 7, though the town did grant his severance in 2000.
In 2017, he and his wife moved to a property near Church and McNab roads, which is also not on a water line.