York Region passes illegal Official Plan, testing Ontario Government’s commitment to not “touch” the Greenbelt
One third of Council votes against the Plan
July 6, 2022
Traditional territories of the Huron-Wendat, the Anishnaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Chippewas and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation -- After a complex series of last-minute motions and closed-door sessions last Thursday that made it difficult for Councillors -- let alone residents -- to discern what was being debated, York Region appears to have presented Minister of Municipal Affairs, Steve Clark, with an unlawful Official Plan (OP) that purports to mark four protected Oak Ridges Moraine and Greenbelt properties for destruction. No other municipal government has done this since the Greenbelt was created in 2005.
Municipal governments do not have the power to remove protections from Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine land. However, the surprise move seems calculated to entice the Minister into approving York Region’s Official Plan and using provincial powers to remove Greenbelt protection. This would break the provincial government’s clear and oft-repeated promise that it “won’t touch the Greenbelt, we won’t build on the Greenbelt.”
This last minute power-play -- led by a pair of notoriously pro-sprawl councillors -- has now drawn York Region into open defiance of some of Ontario’s most important and most popular environmental protection laws. First, Whitchurch-Stouffville Mayor Ian Lovatt pushed through a Committee of the Whole motion to swallow two segments of the Oak Ridges Moraine. At the June 30th Regional Council meeting, Council initially decided to take those out of the OP. But then, after Vaughan’s Regional Councillor Linda Jackson brought two Greenbelt areas in Vaughan into the OP at the last minute, defying both procedural bylaws and disrespecting the typical process of having staff reports and support for development proposals, pro-sprawl Councillors also forced the inclusion of Lovatt’s Greenbelt grab.
“The majority of Council decided to go all in with their requests for Greenbelt destruction. 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.
Despite a massive glut of existing greenfield land that is more than sufficient to meet housing need up to 2051, the Council’s pro-sprawl axis forced through a 7,785 acre expansion of development in farmland at triple the current rate, for 30 straight years.
Those watching the meeting were dizzied by the back and forth, with Council going into closed sessions multiple times to get legal advice from staff. Mayor Margaret Quirk of Georgina described the gong show: “we’re pulling apart cotton candy,” and “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 17 years of being in government.”
On one occasion, after the vote to add Vaughan’s contested Oak Ridges Moraine Rizmi lands into the Official Plan failed, Council went into closed session, re-voted, and then supported the inclusion of the Rizmi lands in the OP. This significant decision was introduced as a “minor amendment” to the OP by Jackson, saying, “I just want to add these two addresses to the motion.” Despite the clerk and legal staff both saying ‘this is not how it’s done’, Jackson won, with no interference from Chair Emmerson. Her last minute amendment has the effect of adding 250 acres of Oak Ridges Moraine land for development.
“Council manipulated the process to get the lands that they wanted included in the Official Plan. All of it is beyond what York Region needs to meet the population and employment minimums mandated by the province,” said Irene Ford, Stop Sprawl York Region member and Vaughan resident. “Will the province approve an Official Plan that was endorsed in a way that makes a joke of York Region’s procedure bylaw, possibly their code of conduct, is not in provincial conformity, and can’t be endorsed by York Region professional planners?”
Those who voted in favour of the Official Plan are: unelected Chair Wayne Emmerson, all four Vaughan representatives: Mayor Mario Bevilacqua, Linda Jackson, Gino Rosati, and Mario Ferri; East Gwillimbury Mayor Virginia Hackson; Whitchurch-Stoufville Mayor Iain Lovatt; Newmark representative Tom Vegh; Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti and representatives Joe Li and Jim Jones; and Richmond Hill Mayor David West, and representatives Joe DiPaola, and Carmine Perelli.
Those who voted against the Official Plan are: Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk and representative Rob Grossi, Newmarket Mayor John Taylor, Markham representatives Jack Heath and Don Hamilton, Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas, and King City Mayor Steve Pellegrini. All but Heath and Hamilton represent Lake Simcoe watershed municipalities.
“When decision-makers understand the ecological context of their decisions, they tend to make decisions that support sustainability. I think the vote shows that Lake Simcoe is teaching them about ecological limits,” says Malcolmson.
Luckily, York Region simply doesn’t have the power to remove land from the Greenbelt.
“This appalling move by York Region’s pro-sprawl councillors illustrates one of the key problems the Greenbelt was created to solve: left to their own devices, land speculators and their allies on municipal council would eventually find one excuse or another for stripping most farms or wetlands of Greenbelt protection,” said Phil Pothen, Ontario Environment Program Manager at Environmental Defence. “The Greenbelt addressed that problem by removing local councillors’ power to ever approve development on land within its boundaries. The Provincial Government pledged repeatedly to Ontario voters that it will never strip any land protected by the Greenbelt Plan and last week’s illegal vote does nothing to absolve it of that commitment.”