Greenbelt could die ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ if York Region landowners' exemption requests granted: environmentalist
May 27, 2015
By Lisa Queen
Developers in York Region are trying to shoot holes in provincially protected Greenbelt lands, opening the door to urban sprawl and threatening environmentally sensitive areas, the leader of an environmental watchdog group says.
Several landowners, including developers, are hoping to exclude their properties from the Greenbelt, which was established to protect natural and agricultural lands, Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said.
The exemptions could allow development on those properties and lead to the erosion of the Greenbelt, he said.
“We will end up with death by 1,000 cuts and it will be the end of the Greenbelt. It will just change everything,” he said.
“I’m really disappointed some municipalities want the development we had in the 1950s, but I think the citizens of Ontario want something different.”
Gray’s comments come during a critical week in which York Region will hold a special council meeting today in advance of the province’s deadline tomorrow for submissions on the Greenbelt Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe and the Niagara Escarpment Plan.
Landowners across York are asking for properties to be exempted from the Greenbelt, including parcels along Hwy. 404 in Markham, Richmond Hill and Whitchurch-Stouffville, northeast of Pine Valley Drive and Teston Road and along Kipling Avenue in Vaughan, along Elgin Mills Road in Markham, along Hwy. 400 and in Lloydtown in King Township, at Woodbine Avenue and Ravenshoe Road in Georgina, north of Morning Sideroad and between Bathurst and Yonge streets in East Gwillimbury and southeast of Vandorf Sideroad and Bayview Avenue and northeast of Bathurst and Henderson Drive in Aurora.
There were no requests from Newmarket landowners.
Despite Gray’s concerns, the province is looking to strengthen the Greenbelt, Newmarket-Aurora MPP Chris Ballard said.
“I can say minister (of municipal affairs Ted) McMeekin has stated publicly his goal, his task actually, is to make the Greenbelt bigger, not smaller. He is very committed to that,” he said.
“I’ve had discussions with him right from the get go. Preservation of the Oak Ridges Moraine was one of the top three things I heard at the door (during the provincial election), so I’ve taken that to Queen’s Park.”
Joe Vaccaro, CEO of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, agreed.
“The Greenbelt is not going anywhere. The government has been very clear, they want to grow the Greenbelt,” he said.
While significant growth is coming to the Greater Golden Horseshoe - four million more people and 1.8 million more jobs by 2041 - the province has made it clear intensification will ensure the huge region is not paved over from one end to the other, although exactly what future planning will look like is part of the provincial review, Vaccaro said.
While Vaccaro said landowners seeking exemptions are simply taking advantage of an opportunity to argue their land should not be included in the Greenbelt, Gray sees the requests as a bigger threat.
The exemptions would make a joke of the Greenbelt Plan and prove it to be a provincial policy with no teeth that can be weakened by “deep-pocketed developers,” Gray said.
Allowing even a few exemptions could open the floodgates, he said, adding there is already enough land available for development until 2041 without changing the Greenbelt.
Environmentalists are raising red flags unnecessarily, Vaughan Councillor Michael Di Biase, chairperson of the region’s planning committee, said.
“It’s not something to be alarmed about,” he said, adding he doesn’t believe the requested changes to the Greenbelt Plan are as significant as environmentalists are making out.
“Environmentalists will disagree to anything and everything because they don’t want anything taken out and they want more land added.”
Di Biase believes many residents would agree with requests by developers and municipalities to open up land in the Greenbelt along 400-series highways for employment lands.
Developable land is needed to accommodate the 700,000 new residents and the 350,000 new jobs coming to York Region by 2041, he said.
York-Simcoe Progressive Conservative MPP Julia Munro had concerns with the Greenbelt Plan when it was implemented a decade ago, arguing it wasn’t based on sound science and economic considerations.
“It was taking a certain area and drawing a line around it, a Liberal line,” she said.
It also resulted in development leapfrogging over the Greenbelt to other green spaces, Munro said.
“It was like the Wild West of development because it was outside the Greenbelt and it was available,” she said.
While Munro isn’t opposed to creating exemptions to the Greenbelt for some landowners and believes the rights of property owners should be respected, she argued any changes must be made as part of a comprehensive approach to planning.
For example, it makes no sense to leave a parcel of agricultural land in the middle of an urban area because farming does not take place in isolation, she said.