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'Railroaded into extreme sprawl'? York Region rejects appeals for intensification
Oct. 25, 2021
Kim Zarzour

Urban sprawl won the day, environmental activists say, after a marathon council meeting in York Region that saw the region vote in favour of increasing urban settlement areas - potentially opening up 80 per cent of the remaining undeveloped “whitebelt” land for development.

At a special council meeting Oct. 21, regional councillors listened to three hours of delegations and received multiple written submissions, including more than 90 from local residents and activists, urging the region to hold the line on urban sprawl.

Council was deciding on a staff recommendation to phase in intensification rates at 50 to 55 per cent as part of a provincially required municipal comprehensive review process mapping out the region’s growth for the next 30 years.

Regional planning staff recommended 50 per cent of growth be confined to existing settlement until 2041. Over the following 10 years, 55 per cent of growth would take place in those areas.

The remaining growth would come from opening up 2,050 hectares of land in undeveloped farmland and countryside areas.

A motion by Newmarket Mayor John Taylor, to opt for a 60 per cent rate (700 hectares) instead, in order to build denser, more environmentally friendly developments in existing communities, was defeated in a 5-16 vote.

Taylor, Markham Reg. Coun. Jack Heath, Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk, Richmond Hill Coun. Godwin Chan and Markham Deputy Mayor Don Hamilton voted in support.

“Like the many residents, local neighbourhood associations and York Region environmental NGOs, Environmental Defence is deeply disappointed to see that York Region is letting itself be railroaded into extreme sprawl,” said Ontario environment program manager Phil Pothen, in reaction to the decision.

While landowners and developers praised the 50 to 55 per cent plan, saying it balances the need for family housing in lower-density areas with high-density and ensures an adequate supply of ground-related housing, the vast majority of those who spoke to council expressed concerns for the environment, loss of locally grown food and affordable housing.

Markham resident Alexis Whalen called on council to consider a hard urban boundary for at least 10 years to wait for clarity on environmental solutions and carbon emission reduction.

“I want a livable future for my children and all the children,” she said. “You want me to be concerned about where they will live but I’m way more concerned about how they will live. Will they even have a livable planet and if they don’t, what does it matter if the market offers them a single detached home with a patch of grass?”

Others warned that allowing more car-dependent sprawl would harm the health of an already fragile Lake Simcoe.

“The more greenfields we pave over, the more cars we force onto the roads, the more contaminants like road salt will enter the lake,” said Susan Sheard.

Katie Konstantopoulos urged councillors to invest in local food, green infrastructure and dense walkable communities within existing settlements to ensure youth are not locked out of the “already broken real estate market.”

Cheryll Case, author and urban planner, said the region “massively underestimated” its capacity to accommodate growth within existing neighbourhoods.

The region should focus on the “missing middle,” she said, by encouraging multi-family housing with semi-detached or duplexes, smaller three-story apartments, laneway or garden suites, or allowing larger properties with older bungalows to house three smaller homes, instead of demolished for one-family “McMansions.”

But several councillors noted that this kind of intensification often brings “Nimbyism” and pushback from communities.

“I really believe that these people who sit back in their homes complaining to us are in single detached homes that was once farmland,” said Reg. Coun. Linda Jackson. “I'd be very curious to see if they had a plaza behind their house and infill development came along ... I think they’d have a change of heart. I don’t think they understand what they’re asking for.

“Let’s get realistic here. We do need to build compact communities but not at the expense of our existing long-term residents who move to our communities to have a specific way of life.”