‘Selfish and offensive’: Residents fight proposed Lanark Highlands pit

An aerial shot of Highland Line Road, from the Wheelers’ driveway to the proposed pit. – Submitted photo

Wheelers Pancake House, Sugar Camp & Museum has been a fixture in the Lanark County community for nearly half a century. But the family who owns and operates it fears a proposed sand and gravel pit next door will destroy not only their business, but also the health and beauty of the surrounding environment.

In 1978, Vernon and Judy Wheeler tapped their first trees at the present site on the Highland Line. Now, they host over 40,000 visitors a year from all over the world to offer a unique rustic Canadian experience. 

Vernon and Judy’s four children Mark, Angela, Kristin, and Tracy are actively reaching out to their community and government officials to attempt to maintain the legacy of their family farm from the proposed Highland Line pit, which would operate adjacent to the family’s business. 

Thomas Cavanagh Construction Limited (TCCL) owns and operates 42 licensed pits and quarries throughout the Ottawa Valley area. Their Highland Line application, which was submitted in January 2023, seeks to create a sand and gravel pit amid Barber’s Lake and Long Sault Creek, just down the road from Wheelers’ Maple. The proposed pit would be a large aggregate pit, constructed approximately 60 feet below water level. 

According to the TCCL’s Highland Line application, the proposed aggregate pit will have a licensed area of approximately 50.6 hectares, with the proposed area of operation (extraction area) being 35.1 hectares.

According to the application, “the maximum annual tonnage is proposed to be 1,000,000 tonnes and the potential pit would be operational both during the day and at night.” The application also states that “based on the Traffic Impact Study, it is estimated that under worst-case conditions 30 trucks will leave the site on an hourly basis.” 

These projections were much more than what the Wheeler family was bargaining for. 

Angela and her father, Vernon Wheeler, spoke with Lanarkist to detail their family’s concerns about the pit proposal.  

“On January 30, 2023, we were notified by a letter that was mailed out by the township to landowners within 120m of the site,” Angela explains.

According to Angela Wheeler, the impacts of this aggregate pit on the family’s land and business would be devastating in more ways than one.

“The site of the proposed pit is on the same side of the road as us and runs from our property to Leo Jay Lane,” she explained. “This is the 1.5 km stretch of the Highland Line before arriving at our laneway.”

When the land was originally purchased by TCCL in 2019, the Wheeler family was approached by the late owner, Thomas Cavanagh, to discuss his ideas about the pit. The proposal was made available for the public to review after Cavanagh’s passing, and the Wheelers say the increase in scale from what what was previously discussed left them blindsided. 

“We never would have believed a company would ask for so much, particularly for extracting below water beside our sugar bush and Barbers Lake,” Angela said.

The Wheeler family members have been hard at work trying to raise awareness about the potential threats to their business and land. Angela detailed, “All of us have participated by writing letters of concern as part of public consultation and have attended all of the meetings and events related to the pit.”

She continued, “Our biggest challenge is trying to plan for the future if we are not protected from incompatible land use.  We harvest sap from over 1000 acres.  We can’t move our business but need to make sure we can protect it. We can’t control natural disasters like ice storms, wind storms and severe caterpillar damage, but man-made development can be controlled. This has the potential to harm not only our business but also the local waterways.”

At the forefront of concern for those opposed to the pit are the potential environmental and ecological impacts that this type of large-scale project could have on the landscape. According to the Wheeler family, the three most pressing environmental risks are the following:

  1. The high uranium levels in the bedrock beneath the site. Experts, including a senior geologist with the province, have warned of the risks of excavating beneath the water table in this area
  2. Silt and fine particles (and uranium) might enter Barbers Lake and downstream waterways, choking out aquatic life and contaminating the water
  3. Increased temperature of the water because of pit water entering natural waterways and the effect on many species, including the coldwater brook trout in Long Sault Creek

Phil White from TCCL spoke with Lanarkist to provide some insight about the proposal and what their team has been doing in recent months. In terms of an environmental assessment, White confirmed that “the submission included detailed technical reports including natural environment and water resources reports, among others, to assess potential environmental impacts. These studies have been carefully reviewed by expert reviewers from the Province, Conservation Authority, County and Township.”

White said TCCL is currently in the process of reviewing the public and government agency comments that they have received to date. In response to comments received, they’re looking at making adjustments and changes to the application, White said.

“These changes and our responses to the comments received will be provided directly to the community and government agencies in late summer or early fall,” he continued. “The community will then have an opportunity to review our responses and changes to the application, and provide further comments.” 

When asked why TCCL purchased this specific site, White explained, “The Province, County and Township identify this site as a Sand and Gravel Resource Area. The Official Plan and Zoning By-law specifically contemplate aggregate extraction on this site.”

White explained that the site contains high-quality sand and gravel resources, and specifically materials that are capable of producing concrete sand, which there is a high demand for in this area.

Those at TCCL are aware of the concerns of those opposed to the proposal, but they would like to reaffirm their support for the local businesses and communities in which they operate.

“We recognize and appreciate the concerns expressed by the community, and are looking at ways to directly respond to and address these concerns,” White stated. “We look forward to continuing to engage with the community on this application and are hopeful that our responses and proposed changes will help address concerns from the community.”

Wheelers Pancake House, Sugar Camp & Museum – Submitted photo

Lanarkist asked the Wheeler family if they have any desire to negotiate or compromise with TCCL moving forward. Angela responded, “It’s kind of inevitable at this point that it will go to the Ontario Land Tribunal, regardless of if the township votes in favour or against the proposal. We won’t be happy if they vote for the changes and Cavanagh won’t be happy if they vote against them.” 

The family patriarch, Vernon Wheeler, who has lived, worked and harvested sap on the property for over 40 years, made it very clear that for him, there is no chance of negotiation or compromise with TCCL. 

He states that the only ideal outcome for him at this point is for the pit proposal to be abandoned entirely.

“In a perfect world I would like to see them shelve the whole idea for at least 10 years,” Vernon said. “It would give everybody a chance to get their act together, especially the Ministry of Natural Resources, because the way they’re managing pits right now has to be looked at.”

Angela added, “You can’t really count on the neighbourly way of things like it used to be. If we agree to anything small when we know what they really want, they’ll likely get more in the future. Once the zoning is changed and a license is given, they can sell that to anyone or do whatever they want.”

Vernon concluded, “It feels like they’re doing everything deliberately against common sense in terms of protecting the environment and protecting the general public.”

Among those strongly opposed to the pit proposal is Larry Schwartz, a friend of the Wheeler family and a tour leader with Expat Explore. Schwartz is based in New York City but for nearly twenty years, he has brought tourists from all over the world to the Wheeler farm as part of their 12 and 15-day Eastern USA and Canada Escape tour.

In support of the Wheeler family, Schwartz has written two letters concerning the pit proposal. The recipients of these letters were the Aggregate Resource Act and the Ontario Minister of Tourism.  

In a letter provided to Lanarkist, Schwartz writes “When I first heard about the Cavanagh Barbers Lake / Highland Line Pit proposal, I was perplexed and then I was appalled. Why on earth would you even consider for a millisecond building a pit next to one of Ontario’s most beautiful hidden tourist attractions?”

The letter continues, “I see this as the equivalent of putting a garbage dump across the street from the CN Tower or turning Niagara Falls into a sewage treatment plant. That’s how selfish and offensive this idea is.”

Schwartz was not subtle when sharing his adamant disapproval of the pit, stating, “As someone who has been to 149 countries in the world, I can safely say this idea is the kind of nonsense you encounter in poor, underdeveloped nations with corrupt governments who only care about themselves and not their people. I thought the government of Ontario was not in this category. Perhaps I was wrong.”

Schwartz letter of opposition is just one of many, said Angela Wheeler.

“The township stated last summer they had already received over 300 letters of concern from citizens, more than they’ve ever received for anything. The township can continue to receive letters until their meeting reconvenes.”

Angela added, “The support has been huge. People can’t believe such a proposal would be permitted on land beside our agri-tourism farm and a natural spring-fed lake.  People were angry that the proponent clearly cut the majority of the forest on the land and grubbed it immediately before the biologists came to do the studies for the natural environment report.”

She concluded, “It seems to be a non-partisan issue. People agree that aggregate industries are important but this is an inappropriate place to consider extracting at this time.”

For those interested in learning more and getting involved, you can connect with Angela and her non-profit community group Friends of Lanark Highlands Group at https://www.friendsoflanarkhighlands.org/

Lanarkist will continue to provide updates on this story as it develops. 

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