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North Gwillimbury Forest to be 'untouched forever' as public nature reserve, part of Greenbelt

Province promises 2 acres of green space per 1 acre of MZO development
June 18, 2021
Amanda Persico

After years of back-and-forth, Georgina’s North Gwillimbury Forest is protected from future development.

The province recently announced the former Maple Lake Estates lands, which includes the North Gwillimbury Forest and environmentally sensitive wetlands, will come under the protection of the Greenbelt.

The 890-acre parcel of privately-owned land, which was at one time slated for a 1000-home subdivision, will now fall under the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority and will become a publicly owned nature reserve in Georgina.

"This is a priceless ecological asset for the residents of Georgina, for the Lake Simcoe watershed and for Ontario," Jack Gibbons of the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance said.

The alliance has been fighting for protection of the area for more than a decade.

The development proposal had a complex history of municipal, regional and provincial planning approvals dating back more than three decades, Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk said.

"You have no idea how long I’ve dreamed of this day," she said. "It’s been a long fight, and one worth fighting for.

"Georgina is a community that loves and appreciates its outdoor green spaces," she added. "As we plan for future growth, we need to balance that with protecting the environment. Today, we have received a special gift that we can give to future generations."

Over the next several years, the LSRCA is planning restoration and enhancement projects on the property, and to establish a long-term plan for the future of the nature reserve.

"For years, this was unresolved," York-Simcoe MPP and Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said.

"Now, the North Gwillimbury Forest will be untouched forever."

Development on the land was already disallowed after a 2019 LPAT ruling against developing on the sensitive wetlands.

During the announcement of the new nature reserve, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark also noted the government’s plan to add more protected lands to the Greenbelt by adding two acres of green space for every acre of land developed through the use of a Minister’s Zoning Order.

"We are balancing responsible growth with protecting the environment for future generations," he said.

That’s a troubling sign of what’s to come, NDP Environment, Conservation and Parks critic Sandy Shaw said.

"(This government) is letting developers have extremely valuable and environmentally sensitive lands and pretending to replace it with less valuable, less ecological significant land," Shaw said.

"People are concerned this announcement is a warning sign that (this government) is about to gift more MZOs so developers can pave over wetlands and precious farmland."

The Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition said the announcement rings hollow.

"(The government) is simultaneously ignoring the most important wetland in the watershed, the Holland Marsh, which is slated to be the future home of a 16-km highway," the groups said in a joint statement.

According to the groups, the new 4- to 6-lane highway, commonly know as the Bradford Bypass, would remove about 50 acres of woodlands and marshlands.

"While one hand of the government gives, the other hand so casually takes it away, and Lake Simcoe’s health hangs in the balance," the joint statement reads.