April 29, 2009

Province demanding higher densities for new housing

As published in The Erin Advocate

Smaller, more affordable homes will be a key part of any new residential development in Erin, once Ontario's new Places to Grow guidelines take effect.

Designed to limit urban sprawl and make more efficient use of existing land within built-up areas, the plan requires Wellington County to take its share of Southern Ontario's growing population. In turn, Wellington wants Erin to take some of that growth.

The town is not obliged to grow, however, until it has the capacity to treat sewage in its urban areas. Since 2007, new housing has been frozen while the Town organizes its Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP). Public input meetings start next week, on Monday, May 4, at 7 p.m., at Centre 2000. The examination of sewage and other growth issues will take another two years.

At a public open house last week at Erin council chambers, County Planning Director Gary Cousins said Wellington is committed to maintaining "small town character" in its communities.

County projections show almost no urban growth in Erin until 2016. The forecast for 2016 to 2031 is for Erin village to grow by 1,300, to a total of 4,400 people (up 42%); Hillsburgh would grow by 700 to a total of 2,080 people (up 51%); the rural population would grow only by 1,040, to a total of 9,050 (up 13%).

The projected total of 15,530 residents is based on having sewage service by 2016. Cousins said projections will be revised as needed, and conceded that if the town decided against a sewage system, it would be difficult for the province to force it upon us.

"There would probably be some disappointment in the County," he said. "Other communities are having to take growth, and I'm sure they would like to see some of it go into Erin."

The idea of resisting all growth is dangerous, said Mayor Rod Finnie, predicting that it would result in fewer public services. "You grow, or you die," he said. Erin Councillor John Brennan asked, "How do you grow, and not lose what is precious?"

As several people at the meeting pointed out, growth in well-paying employment is crucial. If you are only earning $10 per hour, you will not be able to buy even a so-called "affordable" home for $200,000. One of the province's goals is to develop self-sustaining communities, with less need for commuting to big-city jobs.

"You have to bring in the work if you are going to bring the people in," said County Councillor Lou Maieron. He believes there is too much pressure on the SSMP process to develop services for potential new subdivisions on land within the urban boundaries, especially in the northeast area of Erin village.

"Council has a very open mind," said Erin Councillor Barb Tocher. "It is our community who will determine how we will grow, and there will be lots of opportunity for everyone to have their input."

Resident John Sutherland, a member of the SSMP Liaison Committee, said new technologies could eliminate the need for a central sewage facility. "We need to look forward, and maybe have a decentralized system," he said.

If and when the growth comes, here are the basic requirements that the county plans to set, with an amendment to its official plan. The County as a whole would have to meet the targets, so there will be local variations.

• 25 per cent of new housing would have to be affordable for low and moderate-income households.

• For currently vacant land within urban boundaries, known as Greenfield areas, new development would have to have a density of 40 residents and jobs per hectare (1 hectare = 2.47 acres). This would mean about 6 housing units per acre in new subdivisions. Wellington has requested exemption (not yet approved) from the provincial target of 50, which could push density to more than 8 housing units per acre. Developers with subdivisions approved, but not yet built, will be asked to consider revising their plans to add more homes per acre.

• By 2015, 20 per cent of new development would have to be in urban areas that are already built-up, with "a broader mix of housing types than has been the norm in small towns" and encouragement of new rental accommodation. Wellington has requested a major reduction from the provincial "Intensification" target of 40 per cent (also not yet approved).

• Only minimal growth will be allowed for hamlets and rural areas, and new settlement areas will not be allowed.

April 22, 2009

Breaking your lawn's addiction to pesticides

As published in The Erin Advocate

Every year, I look forward to the burst of colour on my lawn that confirms the arrival of warm, spring weather. Living out in the country, I have made a virtue of necessity, learning to love the dandelion and its many cousins. There are too many to pluck and I have no desire to attack them with chemicals.

For those who maintain formal distinctions between the "good" and "bad" plants, things have just become more complicated. To celebrate Earth Day today (April 22), the Ontario government has put into effect its Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Act. More than 250 products are now banned from sale, including many popular insecticides, herbicides and weed-and-feed mixtures.

Golf courses are exempt, along with specialty turf users such as lawn bowling clubs, but even these must make public their plans to minimize pesticide use. Farming and forestry are exempt, and you can still use chemicals to control poison ivy, giant hogweed, stinging insects and various indoor pests.

Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen says the new rules eliminate an "unnecessary risk to our environment, our families, and especially our children". According to the David Suzuki Foundation, "Researchers have found that pesticides can be associated with serious illnesses, including cancer, damage to the immune system and neurological problems."

Although there is the possibility of lower-risk biopesticides, many people may revert to old-fashioned methods of developing a healthy lawn. Naturally, there are businesses ready to help.

Dave Dittmar of Backyard Organics in Guelph was the guest speaker at the first of three events sponsored by the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE), held recently at Centre 2000. His firm helps clients "grow healthy food and landscapes using ecologically sound methods".

Many lawns have become dependent on pesticides, requiring high levels of watering and maintenance to appear healthy, he said. Fertilizers that are not well-absorbed by your lawn are likely to be washed away by the rain, adding to pollution in our waterways. Some people have replaced their lawns with attractive alternatives, but the idea of a green open space is still very appealing.

"Lawns should not be toxic zones or water hogs," said Dittmar. "These are not intrinsic qualities of a lawn, but the result of chemical lawn maintenance. It requires a shift in the way you think about a lawn, look at a lawn and feed your lawn."

A truly healthy lawn requires lots of microbes in the soil to enable plants to absorb nutrients, but pesticides kill off many microbes. Dittmarr advocates a boost in microbes and slow-release nutrients by coating the lawn with lots of high-quality compost in the spring and fall, especially if you are trying to make the transition away from chemicals.

"If there only one thing you're going to do, top-dress with compost as thick as possible, even two to three inches. Hammer it on there, and your lawn will thank you for it," he said.

Follow up with over-seeding, using a mixture of different seeds that will be more hardy than a single species. The initial cost of this process will pay off with reduced maintenance costs in the long term, he said.

When you cut your lawn, set your mower to its highest possible level, and leave the clippings as free fertilizer. Thicker, longer grass, with strong, deep roots will crowd out many weeds and make your lawn less vulnerable to insect damage. Longer grass also shades the soil, allowing it to retain more moisture and still look good during dry spells. You can also aerate, with a machine that removes plugs of soil from a lawn to help water and nutrients reach the roots.

For those not ready to go for the full compost treatment, Dittmar suggests Compost Tea. You will need a special machine to brew it ($140 US at www.simplici-tea.com). Essentially, a pump bubbles air through a container with water and a small amount of compost, producing a supply of microbe-rich liquid that you can spray on your lawn.

Find out more about healthy lawns at www.backyardorganics.ca, www.organiclandscape.org, or search out lawns on the Health Canada website, www.hc-sc.gc.ca.

Lorraine Johnson, author of "100 Easy-To-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens", is the next speaker in the CCAGE Environmentally Sustainable Gardening Series. It is on Wednesday, May 13, 7-9 p.m., in the Shamrock Room at Centre 2000. Admission is $5.00. She will show how it is possible to achieve beautiful, low-maintenance gardens – naturally resistant to pests and requiring little or no watering. CCAGE is also planning a self-guided Organic Gardening Tour in June.

April 15, 2009

Erin Tennis Club offers exercise and fun for all

As published in The Erin Advocate

Whether you are looking for hard-hitting competition or a place to meet people and have fun, the Erin Tennis Club offers a great atmosphere, at a very reasonable price.

With five courts located behind Centre 2000, the club provides everyone from kids to seniors with an opportunity for exercise and development of skills. I will admit to a certain bias, since I've been a member for more than ten years. It has been a real benefit to me and my family.

"We have a huge cross-section of people, and it works," said Brian Gentles, president of the club. "We have a really good time."

The courts will be open and you can register this Saturday, April 18, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the clubhouse. The cost is $140 per family, or $85 for adults and $50 for juniors (17 and under). Members do not have to pay court fees, and all activities are at no extra cost – including four lessons at the start of the season.

Membership even comes with special bonuses, such as the humour on the courts, which is high in quantity, if not quality. For example, if you are looking tired after a match, do not be shocked when Brian says, "If you need mouth-to-mouth, you're going to die". As far as I know, he has not been put to the test on this matter, and members are hoping it stays that way.

When it looks like you are about to lose a match, Brian will sooner or later say, "The night is always darkest just before it goes totally black". This line was pretty funny the first time I heard it, but I can assure you it gets more humourous on each repetition.

The first special event of the season is the Spring Fling Tournament, where participants are paired up for doubles matches, on Saturday, May 9. The burgers and drinks are on the house.

Then there are the parties: Beach Blanket Tennis (beach attire encouraged) on Friday, June 19; "You're the Star" (dress up as a celebrity) on Friday, August 21; and the year-end Mexican-flavoured bash after the club championships on September 26.

For kids, there is a Junior House League Program on Friday evenings starting May 22 – ages 7-11 (7-8 p.m.), then ages 12 (8-9 p.m.) There is also the half-day Summer Camp, July 20-24 and July 27-31, with professional instruction at a very low cost, thanks to the support of the Lions Club, the Optimist Club and the Rotary Club.

For more information and names of people to contact on the various activities, go to www.erintennis.com, or send an email to info@erintennis.com.

Erin competes in the Caledon-Dufferin Interclub Tennis League, with teams in both the A and B divisions. Tryouts are in early May and matches are on Thursday nights. On Thursday mornings, the Freedom 55 Traveling Team competes with neighbouring communities.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, there is the Adult House League, with doubles teams balanced to include people of all skill levels. It is great to win a few games, but house league is really about having fun and making sure everyone feels welcome. The club also runs a singles ladder in which people arrange their own games. Winners move up to a higher rung on the ladder. It is designed so that you normally compete with players of similar abilities.

Every weekend there is Ladies' Saturday Morning (9-11 a.m.) and Men's Sunday Morning (8-11 a.m.). Balls are provided and there is no need to sign up. Just drop in and join in the play, with a rotation of doubles partners, for as long as you want.

The tennis club is actually a self-financing committee of the Town of Erin. The club covers its own operating budget, but the facilities are owned by the Town. This year, there may be a resolution to a long-simmering dispute between the Town and the School Board, which has prevented the tennis club from hooking up its washrooms to the board's nearby sewer pipe. (Composting toilets have done a reasonable job in the meantime.) The Town is considering the more expensive option of hooking up the club to its own sewer pipe, which leads to the same treatment plant.

April 08, 2009

Careful grocery shopping essential for your health

Is grocery shopping an art or a science? Perhaps it is more like puzzle, where the pieces never fit together just right; or maybe a video game, in which the forces of evil lure you to spend more money on foods that are less than nutritious.

All I know is that it can be tricky to find healthy food that you really want to eat, especially if you do not have much time or prefer not to be seen using a calculator in the aisles.

Frances Jamison is on a mission to change people's grocery habits, to make healthy eating more of an adventure and less of a chore. She is a Registered Dietician at Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, and she was at Erin's Valu Mart store last week leading an educational Supermarket Scavenger Hunt.

"The choice of food is a very personal and cultural thing," she said, while analyzing the results of the hunt (I did OK, except I had no idea about prebiotics). "We are very lucky in this country – we have so much choice."

If you want to go the more scientific route, you can learn the ideal amounts of calories, fats, carbs and proteins you should aim for in your diet, based on your age and sex. The Nutrition Facts label on manufactured foods gives you actual amounts for servings, and what percentage of your recommended daily intake that represents.

Even if you are not doing exact calculations, be aware that the daily values are based on a person eating 2,000 calories a day. So if a serving is said to give you 20 per cent of your day's fat, it will only be about 13 per cent if you normally consume 3,000 calories a day.

But enough with the math. I prefer the nice, simple suggestions in Canada's Food Guide, such as: "Have breakfast every day" or "Eat at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day." Not that I always do it, but at least I can easily remember it and do it if I choose.

Then there are the big three: fat, sugar and salt. Not that they are bad, but most people take in too much, especially from foods in which these ingredients are added to boost flavour and texture. In general, the more highly-processed and convenient the product, the more likely it is to be loaded with stuff you do not need.

Better to buy your food naked and dress it up yourself (the food being naked, not you). That brings up the culture of cooking – making time to shop well, then planning meals with healthy ingredients. It is a skill and habit worth fostering in our children.

Sometimes the things that seem to make our lives more enjoyable are the ones we are told to have infrequently, in very small quantities, like cake, pastries, chocolates, cookies, granola bars, doughnuts, muffins, ice cream, french fries, chips, pop, fruit-flavoured drinks and alcohol.

The payoffs of the discipline are huge, but can only be felt over a longer time: healthy weight, stronger muscles and bones, more energy, looking better, and lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and various forms of cancer.

Taking care of ourselves, and not taking the easiest ways of satisfying our hunger, does not have to be a complex project. Once you have set some goals, it is a matter of comparing packages in the store and going for products with lower saturated fat, lower sodium, higher fibre, and especially for those over 50, more calcium.

Dieticians say we should not go on "unbalanced" diets, including high-protein plans, and that most vitamin supplements should not be necessary.

"Eat a wide variety of foods, and you don't have to worry. You will get all your essential nutrients," said Jamison. The few exceptions in Canada's Food Guide are a multivitamin with folic acid for women of child-bearing age, and a vitamin D supplement for everyone over 50.

Check out the Guide for new food ideas, try the interactive tools and learn more about a healthy lifestyle at:

Remember, too, that putting good food on the table is an extra challenge for families with a limited income. Support the East Wellington Community Services Foodshare Program with food donations right at the grocery store, or call 519-833-9696.

April 01, 2009

Coloroso probes core of ethical behaviour

Barbara Coloroso does not simply give advice to parents. She drives to the core of what it takes to become an ethical human being.

Her appearance at Erin District High School on May 1 is rare opportunity to hear from a big name in the realm of education speakers and a respected author on topics ranging from bullying to genocide.

She will make a presentation at 7 pm in the gymnasium, after a book-signing session at 6:30, thanks to a combined effort by parents from all five Erin schools, and a grant from the Ministry of Education. Parents now can get free tickets through the schools, and the general public can get tickets as of April 10. Email parentconnectionerin@hotmail.com or call 519-833-9665, ext. 520.

Not everyone will agree with Coloroso's views on parenting. It is an idealistic vision, based on treating kids with more dignity and respect, rejecting the simple techniques of punishment and reward that are part of our culture, promoting strategies to empower young people with inner discipline and self-confidence.

That is the main thrust of her best-selling book "kids are worth it", encouraging a parenting approach that helps children grow into responsible, resilient and compassionate adults. Check out kidsareworthit.com.

How do we develop our moral values? Children get many positive messages from parents, teachers and preachers, but our culture often sends a message that the end justifies the means. It is a confusing flood of influences that includes popular bands, TV shows, T-shirt slogans, websites and the evening news. Coloroso tackles the issue of ethics in her book, Just Because It's Not Wrong Doesn't Make It Right.

A former Catholic nun and a mother of three who is based in Colorado, Coloroso has been a classroom teacher and a university instructor, and has written about breaking the cycle of violence and fear in The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. Quoted in Quill & Quire, Canada's book news magazine, she said: "The premise I take on bullying is that it's not about conflict or anger – it's about contempt for another human being."

It is that line of reasoning that took her writing career in a bold new direction, and the publication in 2007 of Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide. It may seem to have little to do with parenting, but the link is in the study of ethics and human nature. The remarkable thing about genocides is that they are not carried out by obvious monsters, but by ordinary people.

Coloroso has made a few visits to Rwanda, working with the orphans of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people, and lecturing at the National University there. In probing the conditions that lead to violence, both against large groups of people and individuals, she points out common characteristics: victims are seen as less than human, authority is unquestioned and cruelty is portrayed as routine.

The author advocates fighting this weakness by raising a citizenry that cares deeply, shares generously and helps others willingly. At the core, it is about treating others, including our children, the way we ourselves want to be treated.

It is not exactly a new idea, but one that always bears repeating in a new light.