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Friday, April 28, 2006

Developers taking over Lake Simcoe !

'Wild West' causes concern
Developers taking over Lake Simcoe
Expansion could harm ecosystem

If left unchecked, development will kill Lake Simcoe, experts and officials warn.

"Lake Simcoe is under assault from all sides and we are concerned the ecosystem is at a tipping point," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence.

Smith says the province's greenbelt legislation, which put a halt to development in a large ring around Toronto, has driven developers farther afield. And the South Lake Simcoe area is the first place these builders land when they drive north on Highway 400.

"Lake Simcoe is the Wild West of Ontario development right now," Smith said. "The size and number of some of these developments is unprecedented."

All told, the kind of intense development proposed in the south end of Simcoe County would increase the population by more than 250,000 people.

This has more than environmentalists worried.

Simcoe County Warden Terry Geddes "believes 100 per cent" that the very life of the lake hangs in the balance should the pace of expansion pick up.

"I would really be concerned if we became just one great extension (of Toronto) along the (highway) 400," Geddes said.

On Tuesday, Simcoe North Tory MPP Garfield Dunlop introduced a private member's bill called the Lake Simcoe Protection Act.

"There is a lot of concern about what is happening on the lake and how the leapfrogging of development from the greenbelt will affect its health," he said.

Private member's bills — introduced by MPPs who do not sit on the government side — have a poor track record when it comes to passage.

But Dunlop is hoping that if nothing else, his offering will nudge the Dalton McGuinty Liberals into coming up with their own protective measures for the 744-square kilometre lake about 100 kilometres north of Toronto.

The future of Lake Simcoe is a concern shared by the province, which has signalled its willingness to enter the fray by raising a red flag on at least one proposed development north of Barrie.

Critics are concerned about major development proposals for Big Bay Point on the northeast edge of Barrie.

County planners and provincial officials, fearing the worst, recently formed an Intergovernmental Action Plan (IGAP) to look at all aspects of development, particularly the impact on the lake. County staff has also been warned to advise County Council of all major development proposals that would have a significant impact on the "assimilative capacity" of Lake Simcoe and the Nottawasaga River.

IGAP is a joint provincial and municipal initiative created to provide a framework for urban growth decisions. This will include examining the Lake Simcoe and Nottawasaga watersheds to see if they can accommodate the impacts of urban growth.

There are 23 municipalities and four ministries participating in the growth management project. The province has committed $2.25 million to study how it affects the watersheds.

The threat of intense development comes at a time when the lake —- burdened for years with high phosphorous levels —- is starting to show small signs of improvement.

"If all these developments proceed we will be back at square one," said a senior planning adviser for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Gerretsen, who asked not to be named.

Neil Rodgers, president of the Urban Development Institute of Ontario, said new development can be safely accommodated. The key is to halt polluting farm practices and replace the hundreds of antiquated septic systems that service lakefront cottages.

"Simcoe County is an area where planned and responsible development can — and probably should — accommodate some of the growth scheduled for Southern Ontario," Rodgers said.

The province has chosen a small development in Oro-Medonte as an opportunity to get on the record its concern about rapid development surrounding Lake Simcoe.

The province turned down the 396-home, adult-lifestyle community after approvals from both the local and Simcoe County councils.

The province has also plans to oppose the development at an upcoming Ontario Municipal Board hearing on grounds it could damage the lake.

Ron Golden, a Toronto dentist who has a cottage in Oro, said the development is simply in the wrong place.

Furthermore, the addition of some 1,000 residents to the tiny municipality of 15,000 just north of Barrie can't help but have a negative impact on the lake, Golden said.

"There is no need for this," Golden said. "We have a 20-year inventory of land already designated for development."

The province appears to agree. Gerretsen, in a letter to the OMB informing it of the province's intent to participate in the hearing, said he had numerous concerns with the development.

"I am of the opinion that a matter of provincial interest is, or is likely to be, adversely affected," said the letter signed by Gerretsen.

Warden Geddes, who is also mayor of Collingwood, has similar concerns.

"We really only wish growth to occur where it can be," Geddes said.

The fears of environmental fallout from development are not misplaced.

Last month the federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada department fined 669676 Ontario Inc. $100,000 after it pleaded guilty to one count of altering, disrupting or destroying fish habitat on a tributary to the West Humber River in Brampton. The fine is the second highest in Ontario history handed out by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Bruce Singbush, a senior planner for the municipal affairs ministry, said there is a "host of major" development applications throughout the southern part of Simcoe County in Bond Head, Bradford and Innisfil.

"If you add them up, it's about 242,000 people over and above what the current commitments are by the municipality to grow ... that's a phenomenal amount of people," he said.

The current population of Simcoe County, which takes in a large area right over to Owen Sound on the west, is about 420,000. Growth projections anticipate the area expanding to 667,000 by 2031, not taking into account the additional proposed developments. Singbush said it is vitally important that all the interested parties get a "firm handle" on the health of the watershed.

"The facts do show that the stress on the watershed continues and, in fact, may increase under some additional stress," Singbush said.

"That doesn't mean that there aren't ways that can be managed to mitigate those impacts, but it does clearly show some very tough challenges on those watersheds," he added.

Mark Aitken, chief administrative officer for Simcoe County, said the health of the watersheds is "paramount," because all levels of government seem to understand the potential dire outcome.

PUBIC EDITOR'S MEMO: The original version of this story has been changed to correct three errors in the text.


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