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'Terrible governance': Is York Region’s new Official Plan illegal?

Region asks Ontario government to allow development on Greenbelt, Oak Ridges Moraine
July 8, 2022

The Ontario government remains tight-lipped about how it will handle York Region’s new Official Plan and the latest challenge to the province’s Greenbelt protection.

The challenge is embedded in the region’s newly adopted plan for growth over the next 30 years that expands settlement areas, potentially opening up almost 8,000 acres of green space for development.

Activists, farmers and residents have appeared before council multiple times warning the plan is illegal, precedent-setting and will lead to more environmentally damaging urban sprawl.

The region already has a “massive glut” of greenfield land, more than enough to meet housing needs up to 2051, they said.

But in a contentious, labyrinthine 8-hour long council meeting June 30, two-thirds of regional council voted in favour of the plan.
It now goes before the ministry for approval.

Environmental groups say Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark can not approve because the Greenbelt Plan makes it permanently off-limits for suburban boundary expansion; the Planning Act prohibits Official Plans that do not conform.

A statement released this week from two activist groups, Environmental Defence and Stop Sprawl York Region, predicts the provincial government will now be challenged to keep its “clear and oft-repeated promise that it ‘won’t touch the Greenbelt’.”

A ministry spokesperson declined to comment, saying, in an email, it has not yet received the plan.

The province called for all regional municipalities to submit their 30-year plans by July 1.

York’s final vote, June 30, was the last council meeting before summer break and confusion abounded, both in council chambers and the among those attempting to follow via livestream, with multiple last-minute motions and closed-door sessions seeking legal advice.

“It was a race-to-the-bottom meeting one might use in a civic class as an example of terrible governance,” said Claire Malcolmson, Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition’s executive director.

Regional chairperson Wayne Emmerson called it, “the most challenging day in my 30-plus years. It really has been tough and we haven’t pleased everyone.”

In a media statement July 7, Emmerson said he is proud of the plan to accommodate more than 2 million residents and 1 million jobs by 2051.

“We could not have accomplished this significant milestone without the support of our municipal partners, stakeholders and the public who participated throughout the process,” he said.

Not all on council agreed.

Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk and regional councillor Rob Grossi, Newmarket Mayor John Taylor, Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas and King City Mayor Steve Pellegrini -- all representing Lake Simcoe watershed municipalities -- voted against the plan, as did Markham regional councillors Jack Heath and Don Hamilton.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 17 years of being in government,” Quirk said.

“This is just a recipe for appeals to the Official Plan; lawyers will love this. I'm sure they're sitting here salivating watching the proceedings. The media is probably enjoying this circus. I don't know if people got popcorn out, but this is crazy ... There is so much wrong here that I can't even begin to unravel it.”
In addition to incursions into the Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine and a low intensification rate, Taylor pointed to “a dozen-plus significant planning amendments that had no accompanying staff report, no analysis, no financial impact analysis. There are at least two major motions staff are not going to be able to sign off on ... I believe this is not a financially and environmentally or socially sustainable plan.”

Vaughan Regional Councillor Gino Rosati called for compromise.

“When we have something this complex, for any one of us, there is always something that you don't like.”

In addition to Emmerson and Rosati, those who voted to support the plan included Vaughan Mayor Mario Bevilacqua and regional councillors Linda Jackson and Mario Ferri; Richmond Hill Mayor David West, and regional councillors Joe DiPaola, and Carmine Perrelli; East Gwillimbury Mayor Virginia Hackson; Whitchurch-Stouffville Mayor Iain Lovatt; Newmark regional councillor Tom Vegh; Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti and regional councillors Joe Li and Jim Jones.