Imagine waking up one morning to find half your house slipping over a cliff.
That's the ever-present fear of many residents on Springbank Avenue, on the Scarborough Bluffs, as erosion eats away backyards and creeps closer to their homes.
Neighbours worry that development in the area in general, and a 21-unit townhouse soon to be built mere steps to the north at 1757 Kingston Road in particular, will further destabilize the area and speed up the rate of erosion.
"I've seen mature trees drop, boom, right off the cliffs," says June Weber, a long-time Springbank resident. "People used to have full-sized tennis courts. No more."
Shouldn't the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority be concerned about this soil slippage on one of T.O.'s best-known natural features? The answer is they are and they aren't. While TRCA has a 25-year shoreline management program to monitor erosion rates and conduct shoreline protection work, the organization has taken a surprisingly laissez-faire approach when it comes to development at the top of the bluffs.
TRCA waterfront specialist Larry Field says that while the TRCA oversees the bluffs, it has limited jurisdiction at the top.
It's true that the TRCA looks at hazards around the surrounding bluff area if a developer wants to build houses, and will call in engineers to assess whether it's safe, but its responsibility stops where the backyards begin, according to Field. Strange, since the TRCA's mandate is to prevent flooding and erosion, events that can certainly begin on the heights. From the TRCA's point of view, it's buyer beware.
"Every little issue along the Scarborough Bluffs is not the public taxpayer's responsibility," says Field.
Erosion around the bluffs is a big deal. Last summer, David Brown, who owns a house 30 feet from the cliff on Birchmount, took his neighbours, Gary and Mae Stephenson, to the Ontario Municipal Board over their plan to sever their lot and build a two-storey house behind an existing home. He's afraid the development will increase erosion in the area. He won his case, but his neighbours have since taken it back to the OMB.
"The view from my backyard keeps getting better," says Brown, who claims that he saw erosion there increase after neighbours to the north tore down an existing house and replaced it with a larger one.
Mae Stephenson doesn't buy all the talk about erosion. "All along the bluffs they're excavating, and if the Conservation Authority says it's OK, why wouldn't it be?"
Maybe. But residents on Springbank are still taking their case against the 21-unit townhouse to the OMB. Weber and about 40 neighbours are urging the city to conduct a full hydrogeological study of the area before the Kingston Road development goes through.
So how much damage can water do? Well, potentially a lot, according to hydrogeologist Walt Gibson, who was hired by Springbank residents to conduct tests around their homes.
Gibson found the Springbank area to be especially sensitive to erosion because of shallow water running about 2 metres below the surface. The closer water runs to the surface, the more likely it is to cause erosion.
However, TRCA spokesperson Deanne Rodrigue says its studies have not found much water below the surface. "From our view, it's safe to build. I think it's mainly the residents who don't want the condo to go up, but we don't have any environmental issues around water or flooding."
In 1994, the TRCA condemned and demolished one house at 41 Springbank because literally half the ground the house was on had caved in.
The development on Kingston Road east of Birchmount will be built on a former gravel pit that's been there since the turn of the last century, Gibson says, which means it could adversely affect the bluffs by altering groundwater flow patterns.
Jacques Carrier, who owns the property and lives in the neighbourhood, says he's tried to address his neighbours' concerns, but they just won't stop complaining.
"These people shouldn't have bought a house here. Now they're blaming everyone else for their stupidity."
Still Gibson urges installing piezometers (vertical devices to measure shallow groundwater) along Kingston Road before and after construction.
Meanwhile, the residents continue to cross their fingers.