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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Grading greenbelt's guardians

The greenbelt that's intended to curb sprawl and preserve natural areas in the Golden Horseshoe won't survive unless the province gets much tougher about protecting it, says a report to be released today.
Development is already slated for at least one part of the 720,000-hectare band of farmland, forests and meadows that stretches from Niagara Falls to Peterborough, and north to Lake Simcoe.
And much of the rest is threatened by expansion of highways, water and sewer pipes, gravel pits, as well as industrial and residential projects, says the report by the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance, a coalition of 80 watchdog groups.
The report gives the province a B+ for its handling of the greenbelt since it created the protected zone two years ago.
The public loves this jewel of southern Ontario – it got 89 per cent support in a recent poll – and the government has done a decent job of defending its current borders, the report states. Planning polices also support the greenbelt, at least in theory. And this month, the province added 600 hectares of rural land, just past the northeast corner of Toronto, to Rouge Park.
The government has performed well on some of the 10 "hot spots" identified in the report but failed badly on others, the alliance says.
The crucial factor, though, is that the greenbelt is "too small and still too vulnerable to attack," the report says.
"If the provincial government doesn't take a more aggressive approach to changing development patterns, this Greenbelt will suffer the identical fate as Premier Bill Davis' Parkway Belt of the 1970s (which is now known as Highway 407)."
Along with threats to the greenbelt itself, developers have begun to move into places just beyond its outer boundary, particularly in Simcoe County, on the west side of Lake Simcoe.
If they're allowed to proceed, sprawl, traffic congestion, pollution and the loss of prime agricultural land will continue unabated, the report says.
"If the result of the greenbelt is just an intensification of damaging development pressures as opposed to permanent change in how development happens, it won't be a successful policy," Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, a member of the alliance, said in an interview yesterday.
The policy allows new highways almost anywhere in the greenbelt, and a proposed network of 400-level expressways would probably lead to development in areas that are supposed to be preserved, said Mark Winfield of the Pembina Institute, another member.
The highway projects "are completely at odds with what the province claims it's trying to do with its planning policy," Winfield said.
The most extreme case is the proposed extension of Highway 404 from Newmarket to Keswick, at the south end of Lake Simcoe, he said.
The entire route is through greenbelt land.
The divided highway would allow easy access from Toronto to a business park York Region recently added to its official plan, even though the project is to occupy 256 hectares of land designated "protected countryside."
The province made only a half-hearted effort to halt the business park and appears to be proceeding at full steam with the 404 extension, Winfield said.
"The rationale for the business park is the highway, and the rationale for the highway is the business park," he said. The twin developments would also increase the pressure for urban growth in the area.
"This is exactly what the province is supposed to be against."
The same applies to proposed expressways that would link Niagara Falls and Burlington, and Brampton and Guelph, Winfield said.
The proposed network "sets in motion a future time bomb for the integrity of the greenbelt."
Provincial officials say they couldn't derail the Keswick business park because it had initial approval before the greenbelt was created. Such "grandfathering" of projects with only preliminary approval "is not sound legal theory" and sets a bad precedent, said David Donnelly, a lawyer with Environmental Defence.
Another trouble spot is Simcoe County, which was not included in the greenbelt and is now the "Wild West of development in Ontario," Smith said.
The province and local governments approved a growth plan for the county that calls for most of the population increase to be in and near Barrie. But developers have proposed projects that would house 250,000 people in conventional suburbs well south of the city. And politicians in Bradford-West Gwillimbury last fall approved a massive business park and shopping mall at Highways 400 and 88 that would cover about 500 hectares designated to remain farmland.
The province hasn't yet said whether it would challenge any of these projects, but Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen said it will be up to local and county councils.
"We're looking for local solutions and we hope that any solution ... will take the (growth plan) as its foundation basis. I'm not willing to speculate as to what we would do if that doesn't happen."
The government plans to eventually expand the greenbelt but hasn't decided by how much, or when, Gerretsen said.
As to Simcoe County: "I can certainly see portions ... that abut the greenbelt, once the appropriate studies have been finished and decisions made, can be added."
Local opposition might scuttle the plan, he suggested: "I think it would initially depend on the reaction of the county council and the two city (Barrie and Orillia) councils there as to how they want to proceed.
"You've got to wait for the appropriate work in order to allow it to happen."

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