by Theresa Peluso

Council Meeting Report for April 16, 2020: the roadside spraying saga, continued

Many residents were surprised to learn, on the evening of April 14, that a special Council meeting on the contentious topic of roadside spraying would be held on the afternoon of April 16, basically giving everyone just 43 hours’ notice.

At the beginning of this meeting, Mayor Christa Lowry explained that, because of the Province’s State of Emergency declaration to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, Mississippi Mills Council would focus their discussions during this period on the essential work required to be done by the municipality by holding special Council meetings, such as this meeting was.  Mayor Lowry said that the municipality’s obligation to control noxious weeds required a decision on the Wild Parsnip Management Plan.

Was this issue really urgent enough to justify allowing less than two days’ public notice in advance of the meeting?  Be that as it may, I was impressed by the level of discussion afforded by our Councillors.  The staff members fielding questions on the “updated” 2020 Wild Parsnip Management Program were Abby Armstrong, Environmental Compliance Coordinator, and the Acting Director of Roads and Public Works (R&PW), Dave Armstrong.

First of all, it was baffling to me how, despite the numerous objections over the past several months from Council and the public, several glaring errors (including faulty calculations) remained in the “updated” version of the  2020 Wild Parsnip Management Plan (WPMP), and how Ms Armstrong persisted in recommending Option 1 as the best choice for managing wild parsnip.  Option 1, if you recall, requires the heaviest herbicide use and the greatest amount of boom-spraying, with most of this boom spraying targeted for roadsides with little or no wild parsnip (as proven by R&PW’s own GPS data). The cost for Option 1 was estimated to be about $65,500.

Following Ms Armstrong’s summary of the report, CAO Ken Kelly suggested that Option 3 would be a good choice that would satisfy most Councillors and members of the public.  This option, based entirely on verifiable GPS data, would boom-spray only 10 percent of municipal roads (compared with nearly 24 percent for Option 1), and leave intact the 30 percent of rural roads with no evidence of infestation (compared with none for Option 1). The remainder of rural roads would be spot-sprayed. Option 3 also has the advantage of being $24,000 cheaper (money that could be put to much better use elsewhere).

Several Councillors asked good questions.  Councillor Cynthia Guerard was trying to make sense of the wording in this WPMP, which stated that organic farmers, who have been exempted from mandatory spraying, were part of a pilot project – not to be confused with the pilot project planned by Mississippi Mills; i.e., the Pollinator Seed Project.

After much back-and-forth discussion, I understood that these organic farmers (but not other residents who have opted out) would need to pay up to $1,750 per linear km of roadside frontage (based on light infestation of wild parsnip) to have municipal workers hand-pull or mechanically remove parsnip from this property – and this is what was referred to as a pilot project.  It seems extremely unfair for organic farmers to have to pay such a steep price when other farmers and residents are exempted from the cost to spray their frontages.

It was also explained that these organic-farm frontages could be considered for future implementation of the Pollinator Seed Project (and also the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge) since they would be uncontaminated.

Councillor Guerard also asked whether the bids for spraying would be higher than last year because of the new pandemic-related restriction to have no more than one employee in a vehicle.  Ms. Armstrong and R&PW Acting Director Armstrong replied that they wouldn’t know the answer until the bids were submitted.

Deputy Mayor Rickey Minnille emphasized that more important than the cost of spraying was the need to reduce the use of chemicals in managing our roadsides.  Clearly, here is one member of Council who has understood the conclusions presented by many health and environmental experts on the documented cases of harm caused by herbicides.

Councillor John Dalgity asked that Council be given an assessment of wild parsnip populations for both the spring and late summer.

In the end, thankfully, Option 3 (a vast improvement over Option 1) was approved unanimously by Council.   It was also agreed that Council be provided with a spring and late-summer update on the roadside levels of wild parsnip.  The suggestion that wild parsnip infestations be video-taped was also discussed, but it seems this requires further investigation before it can be considered as an option.

The question of an Integrated Vegetative Management Plan (IVMP) for Mississippi Mills was then discussed.  Ms. Armstrong said that an IVMP would be a good benchmark for identifying all noxious weeds on the roadsides.  Mayor Lowry asked if funding was available to cover the estimated cost of $9,000, to which R&PW Acting Director Armstrong said he would need to investigate.  CAO Kelly said that the municipality could adapt Lanark County’s IVMP.

Councillor Holmes was reluctant to commit any money to this project until she had had a good look at the County’s IVMP.  There was then a lot of debate as to whether the IVMP should be created in-house or contracted out, and what funding, if any, would be required.

Also, it was pointed out that there was a short time-line to produce an IVMP (i.e., completion date by mid-autumn), and that qualified local experts (specifically members of the Agricultural Advisory Sub-Committee) might not have the time to commit to this project right now.  In the end, it was agreed to circulate the County’s IVMP to all members of Council, and then decide what to do.

The Pollinator Seed Pilot Project item came up next.  Several concerns were identified:  the reduced municipal staff available this year because of the pandemic, and the need to get more data, including on-going updates on the pilot project started last year by a local organic farmer (including whether money could be saved while achieving the same goal by replacing pollinator-plant seed with legume (clover) seed at  1/50th of the cost).

At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that Council would request regular updates on this pilot project, which will help them to decide the way forward for next year. Because of pandemic-related constraints, it was decided to also defer the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge to next year.

In the meantime, please keep watch in the next few weeks for assessment updates of wild parsnip levels by the municipality, as this may change the current roadside-management/spraying plans.  Also, please watch for announcements inviting residents to apply to opt-out of spraying or to adopt a road.

It is hoped that all residents who opted out last year will be allowed to do the same this year, regardless of whether they were deemed non-compliant, or at least that the municipality will ensure that any non-compliance was not the result of health problems or personal hardship.

I was generally impressed by the level of discussion and the collaborative nature of this Council meeting.  The fact that Council chose a wild parsnip management option that addresses the many concerns expressed by our community shows me that they are really listening.  Isn’t it gratifying to have elected representatives who actually do that?