by Chris Grosset
The proposed Enerdu project is increasing awareness among the community and Council of the potential impacts of development along the river or among our historical townscape. The April 21 motion passed by the Mississippi Mills Council to the Government of Ontario to identify concerns about the Enerdu project, as reported in the Millstone, asks that the Province not approve the Enerdu project unless five key issues are satisfactorily resolved. Issue number five concerned “the potential loss of natural and heritage assets and the resulting degradation of the community’s character”, acknowledging the location of the project in the historic heart of the community and the importance of the riverscape to our community’s economic development.
This motion is a positive action, but it also raises questions about what our Council feels is a satisfactory resolution to address our natural and cultural heritage, and how that resolution would mesh with our town’s vision. Reading the April 21 motion I questioned whether our municipality has taken previous action to protect natural and cultural resources, if indeed the town does recognize the river and waterfalls as a critical piece of our cultural heritage and the fabric of the downtown. The motion raises a second question about the Council’s understanding of the municipal responsibility to identify and designate its valued cultural heritage, given that previous municipal studies have identified the value of our cultural heritage and the contribution that heritage, and specific resources, provide to our economic and social well-being.
The motion by our council is unclear with regard to issue number five. In the preamble to the motion it states “WHEREAS although Council of the Town of Mississippi Mills recognizes that it has no formal approval authority in the matter of the Enerdu hydroelectric project in Almonte, Council does have a responsibility to represent the interests and well-being of its residents; AND WHEREAS several significant issues remain unresolved and there is great concern in the community over this controversial project; NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council wants the following issues satisfactorily resolved before the Province approves this project.” While the Council may not have authority for the approval of this project, it could be argued that past inaction at the municipal level to recognize and protect our valued cultural heritage has provided opportunities for projects that are not responsive to how our community would like development to occur in areas of natural and cultural significance. And while I am in support of the motion, it is misleading of our Council to infer the prevention of loss of our cultural heritage value is the responsibility of the Government of Ontario.
In Ontario, the government recognizes the importance of protecting our cultural heritage for future generations, and the task of conserving our collective architecture, cultural landscapes, and material culture properties begins as a municipal matter. The government amended the Ontario Heritage Act in April 2005 to strengthen the powers of municipalities to preserve and promote cultural heritage, and the government provides a framework for municipalities to take action to identify and protect these sites under the Ontario Heritage Act.
To gain a better understanding of issue five in the Council’s motion of April 21, and the proposed Enerdu projects impact on the natural and cultural heritage, I reviewed several documents on the Mississippi Mills website searching for our community vision for community development, economic development, and cultural heritage recognition.
In 2012 the Town of Mississippi Mills received the report, Municipal Cultural Plan – Phase 1 – Cultural Mapping Project, work undertaken in recognition of the opportunity to “leverage cultural resources to support economic development and enhance quality of life in the community”. According to this report, Mississippi Mills is “adopting a structured approach to business development that fosters ‘selective growth’, complementing the cultural, artistic, natural and geographic assets of the community.” The cultural mapping project assessed natural and cultural resources throughout the municipality and identified those of significance. This report identified that the top asset of the community was the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi Mills Official Plan (2006) states “The heritage resources of Mississippi Mills are a defining feature of the community. They contribute to the character, civic pride, tourism potential, economic development and historical appreciation of the rural and urban areas of the Town. Perhaps more than any other element of design, our heritage resources defines what is unique and distinct about Mississippi Mills.” In this section of the plan, it states that council may designate individual heritage resources or heritage Conservation Districts.
If municipal reports have identified the significance of the river and heritage resources, and the Ontario Heritage Act provides municipalities with the power to designate these resources, then the Enerdu proposal is highlighting the need for proactive planning in Mississippi Mills to identify the attributes that we value and define what acceptable forms of development will be allowed in relationship to our heritage resources.
In the case of the area of the waterfalls in our downtown area (called the downtown waterfall district for the remainder of this article), I will present my own assessment based on the criteria and process set out by the Ontario Heritage Act. This assessment has been undertaken as a desktop exercise for illustrative purposes only and has not included all of the required methodology of an assessment of cultural heritage districts.
In my opinion the downtown waterfall district is bounded by Almonte/Main Street to the west; lower Mill Street and Little Bridge Street to the south; Queen Street to the east; and, Union Street to the north. The purpose of the assessment is to identify the attributes of the Mississippi River, and specifically the river and waterfalls in the historic downtown neighbourhood, which might make this area worthy of Heritage Conservation District designation, and explore how the proposed Enerdu project could impact on the cultural heritage of the downtown waterfall district.
Identifying the significance of a cultural district requires an evaluation of the values of cultural heritage, and this is governed by an internationally recognized process established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has been adopted by the Government of Ontario to guide designations under the Ontario Heritage Act.
The cultural heritage value of an area is expressed in terms of the site’s design or physical characteristics; and the historical or associative or contextual values. Stated more simply, the area is assessed for the history, natural resources, architectural features, scenic value, and the broader social and cultural importance.
Almonte’s downtown waterfall district would be classified under the UNESCO cultural heritage system as an Evolved Dynamic cultural district comprised of several key components that have developed over time (evolved), and that contribute to the historical, architectural, natural and landscape character of our community (dynamic). Let me present a summary of some these characteristics:
Historical – The municipality’s website states that the town was founded on this location because of the waterfalls, and that it was “once known throughout the Upper Ottawa Valley as the ‘Woollen Town’. Almonte was renowned for excellence in production of woollen and worsted cloth from mills built to take advantage of the sixty-two and a half foot falls in the river that gave it the reputation as a ‘Little Niagara’.” Historically the growth and development in this district has been governed by the existence of the falls and the ability of early generations to harness the river. The use of the river for power therefore is a historical precedence and the Enerdu project is a reflection of the evolving nature of this activity reflecting our town’s current need for green energy. The historical difference is that the mill industry was a major employer in our community and resulted in the growth and development of a dynamic economic base that we can still see today. A collection of personal histories connected to this district would surely illuminate the importance of the river and waterfalls in many lives within our community. The Enerdu project will not result in community economic benefit that will be scaled up to impact our entire population in the way that past development along the river did.
Architectural – Wylie Flour Mill (1842) is only one of several significant architectural features within the district that could be diminished in importance if development is not sensitive to the historical character of the original mill and its powerhouse and millrace. The CPR rail trestle would be impacted by the proposed development. The trestle is an excellent example of a vernacular building structure that was constructed to traverse the river by embracing the existing terrain of the falls. Views to and from the trestle would be impacted by the proposed development, and the design character of the structure and its relationship to the falls would be completely lost. It is the hope of this author that the future of the CPR trestle will be to create a publically accessible space in the river, and planning should be forward thinking to protect this community asset. The Ironworks building, and Thoburn Mill and its mill race, would be impacted by the proposed Enerdu dam. Other buildings within the district include the Old Town Hall; Victoria Woollen Mill; and Old Post Office; along with many original buildings along the main street and private residences backing onto the river, would also have their relationship to the river altered by the loss of the upper falls terrace.
Natural – Although the riverscape in the downtown waterfall district has been used to drive industrial and commercial development for more than a century, development along the river corridor has not completely obscured all natural elements of the river. The tiered waterfalls are still visible in several locations, although modified up stream to allow for mill race dams in two locations near the railway trestle and near the Mississippi Power generating station. The Enerdu proposal to locate the millrace dam below the tiered falls at the railway trestle would result in the loss of this remnant natural feature of the river.
Landscape – Assessed as a cultural landscape, the downtown waterfront district is valued for the attributes of views of the riverscape, waterfalls, built community and key heritage buildings and structures. The Riverwalk provides a public access into the landscape of the district allowing viewers to experience the river, rail trestle and several historic mills in close proximity. Views provide a significant visual link from all sides of the district. Views provided in the district (both panoramic and at specific vistas) have become synonymous with our community identity and are used to drive economic activity in the area of tourism, attracting new residents, and promoting a vibrant downtown business core. Loss of, or impediment to, the riverscape will occur if new development or retrofit development impairs view sheds (which the Enerdu project in its current form would do by impairing views from the Almonte/Main Street to the railway trestle and waterfalls), or it results in the loss or obscuring of a resource in the district (which the Enerdu project would do if the concrete spillway dam is constructed below the tiered waterfall).
There are several other characteristics and attributes of the downtown waterfall district that could be research and analyzed in detail through a comprehensive heritage district study, but let me touch on one further attribute: the spatial pattern of the historic mill races and power house buildings. Within this district the historic mill races created junctures off the main river channel and fed these mill races by small scale dams placed above the tiered falls. With the construction of the Brian J. Gallagher Generating Station by the Mississippi River Power Corporation, the project designed and developed both the mill race and powerhouse with minimal impact on the historic character of existing dams and to minimize the aesthetic impact on the river and waterfalls within the downtown waterfall district. The current Enerdu proposal involves the development of both a dam and powerhouse that are not in keeping with the historic spatial patterning of other historic or contemporary power generation facilities. If this Enerdu proposal is to proceed as initially conceived it will not be respectful of the scale of the riverscape and the historical mill races, dams and buildings within the district.
Municipalities in Ontario have a reasonable concern about declining development proposals and ending up in front of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which hears applications and appeals in relation to a range of municipal planning. This costly process can result in the OMB overturning a municipal decision, or even a municipally approved official plan. But the fear of an OMB hearing should not prevent our municipality from planning proactively for our heritage. A Bill (41) currently before an Ontario Legislature standing committee on general government, if passed, would limit the authority of the OMB to overrule a municipal official plan. If this Bill is to pass it would provide municipalities with more certainty to designate resources and districts of natural and cultural significance, and set out the criteria for development to occur in a way that does not diminish local heritage.
We need a vision for the future of our community and the assets of that community that bring value to our economy, traditions and quality of life. The Enerdu proposal has made it clear that proactive municipal planning is required to identify our cultural heritage resource and cultural heritage districts, and immediate action should be taken to plan for the protection and appropriate development of these resources that contribute to our collective identity and shared economic benefit.
If we do not learn our lesson, in Mississippi Mills and in Ontario, to designate and protect our cultural heritage from poor development practices, what other important heritage will we or our future generations see threatened?
Full text of motion issue 5:
Issue 5: Evaluate the potential loss of natural and heritage assets and the resulting degradation of the community’s character. The project site is located in the heart of Almonte’s historic downtown and is valued greatly by both businesses and citizens. Many new residents and visitors, notably day trippers from Ottawa, are drawn by the picturesque river scene with its grand waterfalls. There is a major concern that the new structures in the river, including the large generation building, new dam and large weir will compromise this scene. The applicant will give no firm assurance about the location of the dam and the resultant effect on the look of the stepped waterfall. Further no assurances about consistent water flows over the falls have been given.