Fight for the whitebelt: York Region in conflict over next 30 years of growth
'It feels like there’s a race to use up the whitebelt as fast as they can,' farmer says; York Region to decide Oct. 21 how much it will expand its urban boundaries into agricultural lands
Oct. 13, 2021
Kim Empringham is one of many York Region farmers who rents part of her farmland on “whitebelt” lands.
The director, treasurer and secretary of the York Region Federation of Agriculture is a sixth-generation farmer, who owns farmland in Stouffville. But like many, she also rents some of the lands she uses within the whitebelt, empty agricultural and rural lands throughout York Region. Much of that land has been purchased by speculators and developers, with future development in mind.
The federation is one of many groups trying to keep as much of the land open and available for agricultural use as possible. But York Region council will wrestle with opening more of that land to development at a special meeting Oct. 21.
“They’re really only saying they want to protect the agricultural land in the greenbelt,” Empringham said, referring to protected lands barred from development. “It’s a finite resource and as the population of York and Ontario and the world gets higher, we don’t need less farmland to produce food, we need more.”
York is deciding the future of the region’s development over the next 30 years as part of a municipal comprehensive review, which will lead to an updated official plan in 2022. Up for discussion is how much the region will grow within its existing settlement boundaries, also known as intensification, versus expanding into new lands generally within the whitebelt, also known as urban sprawl.
The region is planning for how to best accommodate its growth projections under provincial policy. It is expected to be at 2.02 million people by 2051, about 900,000 more than today.
York Region staff proposed at least 50 per cent intensification, possibly phasing in 55 per cent from 2041 onward. That would use between 75 to 80 per cent of the whitebelt, about 2,050 to 2,300 hectares. But environmental and agricultural groups have pushed back with concerns about the environmental impact and different municipalities are trying to get their specific desires addressed in the plan.
Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said growth within his town is secure regardless of the results of the meeting, at about 1,000 people per year. Newmarket is at the slowest growth rate in the region and about 80 to 90 per cent of that growth is intensification.
The exact amount of Newmarket’s growth will be influenced by the decision, however. At 50 per cent intensification, Newmarket could grow from about 90,000 to 110,070 people by 2051. At a phased 50 to 55 per cent intensification, that figure becomes 115,900.
But Taylor has pushed for a more in-depth look at 55 to 60 per cent intensification. Like advocacy groups, he has said intensification is more environmentally friendly than sprawl, with fewer roads built, and densely packed communities lending themselves better to public transit.
“We need to recognize that intensifying forms of development and living are inherently better in terms of addressing climate change,” Taylor said. “We can’t sort of say that we have great levels of concern about climate change and environment, and say we’re just going to develop horizontally out into farmlands forever.”
But new developments in Newmarket often see residents upset about their neighbourhoods becoming denser and more intensely packed. Taylor said he understands development leads to negative attributes like traffic and construction, but some growth is healthy for a community.
"I don't like constructions headaches and I don't like busier roads," he said. "But what growth does bring is things like the Magna Centre, Riverwalk Commons ... Many things people love within the town are here partially or fully because of growth. I think we have to recognize what growth is and what it isn't."
But environmentalists are pushing for York to be even more ambitious in intensification targets, potentially leading to even more people being allocated to towns like Newmarket.
Environmental Defence program manager and planning lawyer Phil Pothen said York has the room to develop without expanding its urban boundaries. He said there are more ambitious municipalities in the GTA like Hamilton, which is aiming for 60 to 80 per cent intensification.
“York Region desperately needs the next 30 years of jobs and homes to complete the region's existing neighbourhoods,” Pothen said.
He said expanding the urban boundary is poor policy for the environment, particularly in the strained Lake Simcoe watershed. He said planners need to be focused on dense populations, to be able to expand public transit and have people use fewer vehicles.
“We’d be talking about more than doubling the rate at which York Region will go into countryside,” he said. “All of the demand for housing can be readily accommodated without doing that.”
But several municipalities with whitebelt lands have a lot at stake in future development. East Gwillimbury is pushing to open 100 per cent of its available whitebelt for development, which will require York to decrease overall population density. York council will discuss the idea at the Oct. 21 special meeting.
The town is one of the focal points of York Region’s growth. East Gwillimbury is projected to grow from about 24,000 people in 2016 to at least 105,000 by 2051.
But Mayor Virginia Hackson said even if all the whitebelt lands are allocated for development and growth, the municipality has more than enough greenspace. About 75 per cent of the town’s total land area is protected with either greenbelt or Oak Ridges Moraine zoning, according to the municipality's official plan.
“The housing market we have in East Gwillimbury continues to sell out, so it's a matter of trying to keep up,” she said. “We are still going to be one of the greenest -- probably the greenest community -- in York Region.”
The municipality is also seeking to expand to add more services. Hackson said the lack of a high school is one point of concern, with students being bused to neighbouring communities like Newmarket, utilizing services elsewhere.
“Community is a priority for our council for sure. It means ensuring we have the services, and the amenities, and the programs the community needs to thrive. It also means we need full-service communities with pools, gyms and arenas,” she said. “It would be nice to have our young people.”
Taylor has said there is no need to open up all of that East Gwillimbury whitebelt land to development yet, noting the sewage capacity does not exist without the stalled Upper York Sewage Solutions. He said future reviews could designate more of those lands for development if necessary.
“It’s not necessarily a decision we need to make today,” he said. “It impacts our town as well, and how we grow and develop.”
But Taylor said going above 60 per cent intensification is not necessarily practical either. He said he would be concerned about meeting future housing demand without some room to expand.
“I don’t think it’s about all intensification, or having no ambitious targets in that area. It’s trying to plan for our future in the most responsible manner possible, but also grounded in reality,” Taylor said. “I hope we have a very good and productive conversation.”
Advocacy groups are lobbying York, both for and against whitebelt development. Environmental Defence is asking people to write letters or book deputations for that Oct. 21 meeting. The organization has said there needs to be more fulsome consultation.
The York Region Federation of Agriculture is hoping for 60 per cent intensification and is advocating for that. Empringham said landowners can still make money off renting their land to farmers, or selling that land that has likely increased in value over the years, without getting developments on them.“It feels like there’s a race to use up the whitebelt as fast as they can," she said.