By Bruce Gillespie
Allan Elgar can pinpoint the moment he became an environmental activist. One spring evening six years ago, planners for the Town of Oakville held a public meeting concerning a proposed development of 3,076 hectares of farmland and woodlots located in the town’s north end. Elgar, a long-time business and finance manager at Bell Canada, had not planned on going to the meeting; it was his wife, Linda, who harboured misgivings about the plans to initiate residential and commercial construction. Unable to attend the meeting, Linda asked her husband to go in her place and take notes.
Elgar joined the 40 or so participants who appeared to share similar reservations. One by one, town staff dismissed those who questioned the necessity of the development. Elgar did not know much about land-use issues at the time, but the prospect of bulldozing some of the few remaining natural areas within town limits in order to build more subdivisions and malls didn’t sit well. When town staff championed the plan on the basis that more development was one of the ways to lower taxes, his hackles as a “numbers guy” were raised. It was the tipping point for Elgar and he began to scrutinize the plans more closely. “Allan tried to speak to the town [officials] about it, and they basically told him to go home. And he said, ‘They can’t talk to me like that, I’m a citizen,’” recalls friend and fellow activist Diane Burton. “He’s been our champion for the environment ever since.”
As a relative newcomer to environmental activism and politics, Elgar, 56, admits he has his own way of doing things. With his broad grin and eyes that light up when excited, Elgar is friendly, plain-spoken and personable, and he clearly relishes the role of public watchdog. Since leading the charge against urban sprawl in Oakville six years ago, Elgar, who took early retirement after being elected to town council in 2000, has motivated local residents with his charisma, boundless energy and ability to clarify complex issues. He handily won back-to-back terms on town council on what was essentially a one-issue platform: sustainable planning and an end to urban sprawl.
Raised on a farm near Millbrook, Allan Elgar gave little thought to preserving natural areas amid Peterborough’s abundance of trees and land. On completing a business degree, Elgar spent the next 30 years working at Bell. He and his family – Linda and twin sons, Andrew and Michael – moved to Oakville in 1994. Nestled along the shore of Lake Ontario between Mississauga and Burlington, Oakville (population 145,000) is located in southern Ontario’s Carolinian zone and contains a number of environmentally significant woodlots and wetlands.
For most of his life, says Elgar, he was hardly what you would call politically active. But all that changed at the development meeting. Not only was Elgar outraged by dismissive town officials, he was also taken aback by their zeal for development. Elgar stayed up late into the night after the meeting, creating a website for Oakville residents to apprise them of the town’s plans and high-handed approach. Digging through some documents, he made a startling discovery: almost 506 hectares of the undeveloped land in question were classified as environmentally significant – a designation town officials had denied. In fact, the area was home to at least two endangered bird species – the Henslow’s sparrow and the Acadian flycatcher – plus at least 10 others that are provincially rare – including the black – crowned night-heron, the Caspian tern and the cerulean warbler – as well as regionally rare plants, such as buttonbush and swamp rose.
Thus armed, Elgar helped found the Oakville green Conservation Association in early 2000, a nonprofit organization with a mission to safeguard the town’s natural areas and help organize residents to lobby council. What began as a small and dedicated group of individuals spreading the word about urban sprawl has since become a force to be reckoned with.
Galvanized by the need to raise environmental awareness, and unable to convince anyone to take on the long-time incumbent for whom developers were hosting fundraising parties, Elgar ran for municipal election a few months later. Elgar’s platform was simple – he wanted Oakville to adopt smart-growth planning principles. “Even though it’s legal, I think it’s fundamentally wrong that any councillor who accepts contributions from the development industry should be able to vote on a development proposal,” he says. “And at every door I knocked on, people felt the same way. And they came out, and they voted.” Elgar won by more than 1,100 votes.
Renee Sandelowsky, a founding member of Oakvillegreen whom Elgar convinced to run for council in 2003 too, was unsurprised. “He’s a really good motivator and very positive about what we can do,” she says. “He loves talking to people and is truly sincere, and I think they really appreciate what he does.” In the six years since becoming politically and environmentally active, Elgar’s successes have not gone unnoticed. Carolinian Canada Coalition (an organization dedicated to protecting the fragile Carolinian zone) awarded him the 2005 Conservation Award for his work to protect natural areas in Oakville. One of the achievements of which he was most proud was the campaign to save the farmland in the north end of town. In the process, Elgar managed to persuade town councillors and planners to consider protecting natural areas in a different way.
Instead of the town’s traditional piecemeal approach to preserving land – purchasing individual woodlots as they became available – Elgar championed the creation of a natural heritage system as part of the town’s official plan. Such a system would preserve entire ecosystems and create linkages between forests and wetlands on the Trafalgar Moraine, which runs east-west across northern Oakville from the Niagara Escarpment to Mississauga. Initially, town planners said it was out of the question. Buying all that land from various developers to create a natural heritage system would cost $232 million, and no money was available.
Elgar persisted, arguing that the system need not cost the town a penny. He explains his reasoning, using what he calls one of his favourite Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) rulings, which he carries in one of two white binders full of well-worn and dog-eared legal decisions, zoning bylaws and newspaper clippings that are never far from his side. In 2002, the OMB ruled on a businessman’s proposal to build a golf course in the Town of Essex on land he owned. A group of concerned residents known as The Friends of the Marshfield Woods opposed the golf course on the grounds that the land was environmentally significant. The key point for Elgar was this: the OMB supported a provincial law that says that landowners need not be compensated for land-use changes. In other words, if town council wanted to preserve a natural area that it does not own, all it had to do was rezone it as environmentally significant to prevent development; council would not have to buy the land outright to protect it.
“Previously we’ve always been buying woodlots and that never, ever should have been done,” says Elgar, who objects to the idea that towns should have to buy natural areas to keep them from being turned into subdivisions or big-box malls. “At the end of the day, we don’t have to spend $232 million, and I think that’s pretty huge.” So far, he says most of the major developers of the Oakville land in question have accepted that the area has been rezoned as environmentally significant, and he expects the remaining, smaller developers to fall into line. The natural heritage system should become a reality within the next couple of years. “In an official plan, you can zone natural areas, and that is going to be happening in Oakville on a large-scale basis for the first time,” he says. “That is so important to every municipality in Ontario. The trouble is they don’t know it.”
These days, Elgar is working on a project to save a 250-year-old white oak tree that is the town’s namesake, which grows in front of the Halton Region office. The tree was to have been cut down to make way for the widening of the road, but Elgar rallied residents to preserve a piece of the town’s history. “I’d hate for us to be oak-less in Oakville,” he says. Town officials claim it will cost $343,000 to build the road around the tree as opposed to through it. Elgar has been quick to respond and is spearheading a fundraising campaign to save the tree before December 15. As of mid-September, the group had raised almost $65,000, and Elgar has talked a local brewery into creating a special white oak beer and donating 50 cents from the sale of each bottle to the tree campaign.
He was also encouraging people in Oakville to join him in the fight against urban sprawl by running in the November 13 municipal election. (Elgar’s opponent dropped out of the race, and Elgar was acclaimed.) He says it doesn’t matter if people don’t know a lot about politics or environmental issues, as long as they are willing to learn – as he did. “They cut down one too many forests, they muddy up one too many streams, and he wasn’t going to take it anymore,” says Diane Burton, now a director with Oakvillegreen. Elgar points out that it makes a big difference to have activists on council. “We need more people there who care,” he says. “We have to make people aware of what we can do as a community.”
Bruce Gillespie is a freelance writer and editor in Simcoe, Ontario. His story, “Fertile Grounds,” appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of ON Nature.