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Caledon’s next mayor will shape its future--Annette Groves and Jennifer Innis have drastically different visions
Oct. 17, 2022

On October 24, voters in Caledon will choose between two candidates competing to become the giant municipality’s next mayor. The choice will have a profound impact on the GTA’s largest community and the entire region, as Caledon prepares for the kind of explosive growth that has already redefined other parts of the Greater Toronto Area.

Annette Groves and Jennifer Innis have diametrically opposing views about how Caledon should grow over the coming decades.

It’s a decision between walkable communities that can accommodate transit and prepare for the coming impacts of climate change while preserving rural and environmentally important green spaces; versus growth that follows what subdivision developers have built across the 905 since the ‘70s, sprawling suburban expanses dotted across the rural municipality with large homes, dominated by the car and a major 400-series highway to be built right along the protected Greenbelt.

Groves favours the former, with a strict approach to planning that forces developers to follow modern ideas of urban design while keeping them out of the Greenbelt and other rural areas where development does not fit. Innis is in favour of more traditional approaches to growth, with subdivision developers leading the way to more of a sprawling suburban built form checkered across Caledon, even in and around sensitive green corridors where they have already assembled land.

Decisions made over the next four years will have direct impacts on the environment, climate change and the life of residents who will decide what they want: some 300,000 new residents accommodated in walkable communities with active transportation, walkways and urban parks, while rural areas are preserved; or agricultural lands and greenspaces paved over for large subdivisions and a mega highway, with warehouses and other commercial transportation infrastructure dominating the landscape.

Allan Thompson has worn the mayor’s chain of office for the last two terms--prior to that he served 11 years on council. His long-time council and political ally Jennifer Innis is vying to take his seat and continue his developer-friendly legacy. Both have aggressively pushed the construction of the 413 Highway, though Innis has tried to distance herself throughout the campaign from her actions over the previous few years.

Groves is trying to attract voters who do not want Caledon turned into a “freight village”, promoting her vision of smart growth in the largest remaining stretch of undeveloped land in the GTA.

Groves was first elected in 2000, representing Bolton, the most urbanized area of Caledon in the southeast corner and Innis joined council in 2014 representing the northwest and south central part of the municipality.

They have rarely seen eye to eye and their position on Highway 413 has recently defined their opposing views around the future of Caledon.

The GTA West Highway, a key project of Doug Ford’s PC government, will run up from Milton along Brampton’s west side before curving south across Caledon and into Vaughan. The PCs claim the highway will reduce congestion on the already overused 400 series highways in southern Ontario. While the PCs claim it will save the average commuter approximately 30 minutes a day, they have not provided any analysis to support the claim. An expert panel commissioned by the former Liberal government released a detailed research report which showed the time savings would be closer to just 30 seconds.

The group of planners and transportation professionals advised against the project, citing the lack of benefits and significant greenhouse gas emissions that would be created, along with the destruction of valuable agricultural land and sensitive greenspaces directly below the headwaters across the provincially protected Greenbelt.

Innis has been a long-time supporter of the 413 project, though she has recently made repeated attempts to distance herself from her own actions to push the project forward.

Innis has claimed she never outwardly supported the construction of the 413 and only supported an environmental assessment for the project. It’s a claim contradicted by her actions and previous statements.

The top item on the Caledon Council 2018-2022 Work Plan supported by Innis states: “Continue to advocate for provincial highway infrastructure including the highway 427 extension and highway 413 (GTA West Corridor).”

When the highway was cancelled in 2018 by the previous Liberal government, Thompson released an official statement on Caledon’s website: “The GTA West Corridor has been identified as a necessary piece of growth infrastructure to help alleviate congestion on Caledon roads and gridlock throughout the GTA… I am disappointed that the Province has discontinued the EA process,” Thompson said.

Innis has voted with Thompson and supported him on the 413 Highway since they both began aggressively pushing for it.

After the PCs reactivated the EA and the project in late 2018, Thompson released the following statement on behalf of Innis and other council members who supported his position: “The continuation of the EA on the GTA West Corridor has been an advocacy priority for Council for a number of years. Just last August, we met with the new Ford Government and the Ministry of Transportation at the last AMO (Association of Municipalities of Ontario) Conference to speak about the importance of the new highway to the future of our community.”

Innis, despite her role as chair of TRCA, which is opposed to the highway, has not voiced any opposition to the project. She was behind a push at regional council in October 2019 when she asked the Province to speed up its EA process for the highway, a move that would ultimately deliver the highway faster.

“Time is of the essence,” she told provincial officials at the regional council meeting, exhorting them to get the EA for the highway expedited.

But as public sentiment began to come together against the environmentally destructive highway that will trigger warehouses and subdivisions and large volumes of commercial trucks across Caledon, Innis began distancing herself from her own actions as the election neared.

“It has recently been reported in local media that Caledon Council supports and advocates for the GTA West Corridor,” Innis wrote in a statement. “To be clear, Caledon Council has only voted to support staff recommendations on the Environmental Assessment and proposed route.”

Council’s official Work Plan, which Innis supported, disagrees. It highlights council’s push for the construction of the 413 GTA West Highway.

A press release last year from the Province makes it clear the plan will feature all the characteristics of a massive highway project. “The GTA West corridor will include a four-to-six lane 400-series highway,” the release stated.

“I have always said a future transportation corridor through our community should feature a rail component for either goods so they can safely get to their markets or for people,” Innis said in an email to The Pointer last year. “What I don’t want to see is 11 million people, which is what the population of the GTHA will be in 25 years, congesting our local roads and costing us millions of dollars to maintain our infrastructure, not to mention the health and safety of our local communities and roadways.”

Innis did not respond to questions for this article.

In February, Groves brought forward a motion to the Town’s planning committee, attempting to have council declare its opposition to the 413. The motion was voted down by Thompson and two of the Town’s councillors, including Innis.

Thompson, Innis and their council allies have made Caledon one of the few municipalities along the highway’s proposed route to not outwardly oppose the project. The City of Mississauga, the City of Vaughan, the Town of Halton Hills, the Town of Orangeville, Halton Region, Peel Region and King Township have all passed motions in opposition to the highway. Brampton, like Caledon, has not--a result of Patrick Brown’s support for the highway along with his council allies.

Innis’s vote in opposition to Groves’ motion, once again showed her support for the highway, despite her recent claims. When asked to explain her position on the 413, Innis did not respond. She said at an event this week that she would not speak with The Pointer when a reporter again asked her to comment.

When Innis was voted in as chair of the TRCA in 2019 by its board, she faced accusations of being planted into the organization’s top spot by developers who were looking to gain influence over the environmental organization.

After she won the vote to get the job, the Toronto Star reported that the agency safeguarding the area’s watershed had elected Innis after unusual behind-the-scenes lobbying, according to the Star’s reporting, including calls from a developer and a Progressive Conservative MPP.

After she got the job, the former chair of the agency raised red flags.

Innis, who served as a PC political staffer in the early 2000s for ex-premier Ernie Eves and two cabinet ministers, said in an email to the Star that she did not know why developers and a PC party official might have urged fellow board members to support her candidacy and that “as a board, we will continue to advocate to protect and restore our watersheds.”

The former chair of TRCA, Maria Augimeri, who lost her bid for re-election in an 11-10 vote that gave Innis the job, was blunt in her response to the Star.

“We have people sitting around the (board) table there now who are there for development interests, not for the interests of the drinking water for future generations.” She said builders will now seek any advantage. “That should not only worry people, that should frighten people.”

The 413 project is currently on hold as the federal government considers it for a full Environmental Impact Assessment, but if it’s ever built, it would significantly increase the chances of large swaths of the Greenbelt being opened for development, impacting greenspaces, wildlife habitat and cast serious doubt over Ontario’s ability to reach its CO2 emission reduction targets.

Innis was caught in another contradiction just this week.

On Wednesday evening, both mayoral candidates spoke at a meeting hosted by the Forks of the Credit Preservation group to discuss the proposed St. Mary’s blasting quarry in Caledon. Innis promised citizens that if elected mayor she would create an aggregate task force to provide input on the Town of Caledon’s updated official plan. Her promise received booing from the audience as her claims, once again, were not supported by her past actions.

In 2016, a motion was brought forward that the Town of Caledon be “directed to form a working group regarding aggregate and related matters”. Innis voted ‘no’ to the motion. The only current councillor who supported the motion was Groves.

It was confusing to many residents why Innis would suddenly be opposed to the St. Mary’s quarry ahead of the election when in 2019 she voted ‘yes’ to the expansion of the James Dick pit which would include extraction under the water table.

Following the approval of Peel’s official plan earlier this year, and the large swaths of land that will be unlocked for growth to support Peel’s surging population, decisions around the type of developments that will be allowed will fall to the future mayor and the councillors around her.

In April, the Region of Peel voted to approve its Official Plan to 2051, which includes the expansion of the urban boundary into 11,000 acres of farmland, which many fear will now be given over to developers looking to continue the same pattern of urban growth that has plagued Brampton--sprawl.

“We really need to stop with the sprawl because sprawl is not a way to develop,” Groves told The Pointer. “We have a lot of challenges. So if we're going to develop we need to develop smartly.”

Groves pointed to the example of Southfields which is a community located along Kennedy Road between Old School Road and Mayfield Road. Groves says many residents of Southfields are unhappy because there is a lot of housing development, but no infrastructure or amenities.

“So what's happening there, those folks who live there, they're going to Brampton to spend their money and support the businesses in Brampton,” she said. “First you’ve got to take care of your own backyard.”

Groves also wants voters to understand how crippling Innis’s sprawl mandate will be to property tax payers, who will have to pay significant taxes to cover services and infrastructure that will have to be extended far out to rural areas and greenspaces where future subdivisions will be built under Innis’s vision. Planners have repeatedly warned that this type of growth is simply unsustainable from a cost point of view and could devastate Caledon’s finances.

Groves wants to build the infrastructure necessary to support growth and provide the services closer to existing development, which will allow Caledon residents to spend their money within the local economy.

According to Innis’s platform, she is prioritizing food security. “Caledon is home to agricultural research hubs, local processing, local distribution and local growers,” reads her platform.

Despite her platform stating she is in favour of protecting Caledon’s agricultural roots, Innis has voted for a multitude of MZOs throughout Caledon. These “Minister’s Zoning Orders” allow local planning to be circumvented by builders and other private companies. Councillor Johanna Downey brought forward an order that would see 494 acres opened up for development tossing aside prime agriculture and environmentally sensitive lands. Innis voted in favour of this MZO, Groves was opposed.

Groves supports creating complete communities that are self sustainable where residents can work and have access to their necessities right where they live. Building sustainable communities also means more affordable housing infrastructure, not expensive sprawling properties many families can’t afford.

Growth was a main theme at a Q&A held for residents of Caledon West Tuesday night. The ‘town hall’ was an opportunity for mayoral candidates as well as those running for area and regional councillor seats for Wards 1, 2 and 3 to speak about their plans for Caledon. Innis was not in attendance.

Like Groves, Innis claims she is also promising to build “complete and connected communities.”

Her past decisions do not provide much evidence to support her recent claims.

In October 2021, Innis voted in support of an MZO that would allow the construction of a 2.2-million square-foot warehouse at 12035 Dixie Road just north of Mayfield Road.

MZOs are used by the provincial government to override local planning processes and sidestep necessary studies, including those designed to analyze environmental impacts.

The MZO for 12035 Dixie Road would allow for the realignment of a tributary of the Humber River and encroach on the Greenbelt. However, despite the obvious environmental destruction, Innis claimed the project would actually enhance the natural features of the area.

“We should always be striving for net ecological benefit, which you can’t always achieve,” said Innis in the planning and development committee meeting in late October last year. “In this site it was possible and it’s been committed to … In fact, not only are [the natural features] protected, they are enhanced. The environment will benefit from the work that will be done on this site.”

It was the first time a government in Ontario made the claim that development on a greenfield or agricultural land (in this case disrupting a waterway) could be good for the environment.

Council, based on information from consultants hired by the developers, claimed the changes to the waterway, to accommodate a massive warehouse, would somehow be ecologically beneficial.

The developers behind the project, Tribal Partners, claim the 10 to 30 metre buffer around woodlands and waterways on the site will protect the natural features from warehouse activity. However, air, noise and light pollution will spread farther and it is unknown what kinds of impacts these pollutants will have on the environment and the surrounding wildlife.

Innis’s connection to developers has again been raised recently following the appearance of third-party advertisements, after she publicly stated her opposition to the practice.

After telling the Caledon Citizen, “I’m not going to legitimize an organization that is a third-party advertiser…I don’t want these third-party advertisers to get any credibility,” she once again appears to have contradicted herself.

Resident Kathleen Wilson, herself registered as an individual third-party advertiser who said she is making no money off her own efforts, shared with The Pointer third-party advertisements being used by Innis. She also provided official documentation that appears to show the advertisements are connected to a developer.

Another contentious issue Innis has supported is the creation of a freight village in Bolton. This massive transportation and logistics corridor would host commercial trucking activities for the distribution of goods. Despite increased air pollution and other environmental impacts, while commercial trucks would be forced onto streets and roadways alongside personal vehicles, Innis has consistently taken votes in support of warehousing and logistics operations that fit the freight village concept.

Residents have been vocal about their opposition to living in and around a freight village.

In early 2020, Groves accused Thompson of making a request to the province to expand employment lands in Bolton in order to build the freight village.

At the debate Tuesday, Groves garnered support from Caledon residents for her promise to get trucks off the roads and out of the villages and hamlets that make the municipality unique.

Innis disregarded multiple emails asking for comment calling The Pointer’s questions “media spin”. When approached by The Pointer at the meeting on Wednesday, she refused to speak about her plans for Caledon.