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Monday, March 12, 2007

Sprawl hits above the belt

Sprawl hits above the belt

The province created a well-intentioned greenbelt to help curb urban sprawl north of Toronto. But on the belt's upper fringes, local councils are bucking recommendations meant to prevent leapfrogging development, Peter Gorrie writes
Mar 10, 2007 04:30 AM
BOND HEAD – At first glance, this is just a quiet crossroads about 45 minutes northwest of Toronto.
There's a scattering of aging brick houses, a tiny church, a gas station and restaurant, and a couple of variety stores where Highways 27 and 88 intersect amid open fields and forlorn patches of trees. The last big change happened about 40 years ago, when a small subdivision went in just west of the old village core. With it, the population grew to around 500, and there it sits.
But not for long. This sleepy hamlet is at the heart of a development boom, and the new official greenbelt that curves across the Greater Toronto Area appears unlikely to stop it, despite the provincial government's best intentions.
The 720,000-hectare band of farmland and natural spaces is supposed to curb urban sprawl north of Toronto and make development beyond it impractically distant for potential commuters. The problem is, it takes less than 10 minutes to cross the greenbelt on Highway 400.
Just beyond that protected strip is Bond Head and the rest of Simcoe County, a rolling, mostly rural area bisected by the expressway. It starts just north of the Holland Marsh's rich, black soil and runs past Barrie and Orillia up to Severn Bridge, where the Canadian Shield begins. To the east, it stretches to Lake Simcoe; to the west, Collingwood.
While the province didn't include Simcoe County in the greenbelt, it has tried, using a maze of policies and regulations, to control the county's growth.
But developers have been snapping up land anyway, particularly in the lower half of the county south of Barrie. They're proposing projects that, if approved, would nearly triple the population to 1.2 million, says county planner Ian Bender. They'd also cover large swaths of fertile land with industrial parks, shopping malls and roads.
The county is the "Wild West" of development in Ontario, says Rick Smith, executive director of Toronto-based Environmental Defence.
Most local politicians and business people are eager for economic growth and insist it can be managed without destroying the county's environment and its relatively tranquil lifestyle.
But environmentalists complain the boom is proof the greenbelt isn't working: Instead of containing growth, it's simply leapfrogging a few kilometres north.
At stake is a new, compact style of growth for southern Ontario, an alternative to conventional, car-centred suburbs that are built despite the extra energy consumption, air pollution, greenhouse gases, traffic congestion and farmland loss associated with them.
Similar development pressures are building east and west of the greenbelt. That's why Simcoe County is so important.
The provincial government plan, called "Places to Grow," anticipates population growth of 3.7 million people by 2031 around the greater Golden Horseshoe – the region running from Niagara Falls to Peterborough, and up to the northern boundary of Simcoe County. For the county, it projects a total population of 667,000.
The policy requires that new development in the Horseshoe be more compact – meaning more people and jobs per hectare – than the land-gobbling subdivisions favoured until now. It also favours "complete communities," each with houses, jobs, stores and services. Long-distance commutes are frowned upon. And it attempts to limit the expansion of urban boundaries.
The province hired a consultant to produce what became known as the Intergovernmental Action Plan, or IGAP, for Simcoe County. The IGAP isn't law, but it is supposed to influence decisions on development.
The IGAP consultants said nearly half of the 235,000 people expected to move to Simcoe in the next 24 years should go to Barrie and a new development area just south of the city, in the northern end of Innisfil.
The rest would be scattered among the county's other communities. Each got a recommended target, with Alliston – home of the huge Honda car assembly plant – and Wasaga Beach among the highest-growth areas.
The study also decided the Innisfil site should be the only one swallowed by development. The other communities have enough space within their existing "settlement areas" for newcomers.
Then the province told the county to come up with a growth plan. Now it's learning how tough it is to maintain control when you call for a "local solution" and the locals and developers have other ideas.
At Nottawasaga Futures, a non-profit organization created by five communities in southern Simcoe County to promote economic growth, Margo Cooney says money and market pressures will shape the county.
"In the end, how the investors wish to invest, and where, will determine where the growth goes," she says. "The province would like (its population numbers) to mean something ... Whether investors agree, I'm not sure. But there's a lot of interest."
Developers have already indicated they'd rather not bother with the province's targets.
"A tremendous amount of land has changed hands, from farmers to land speculators and developers," says Bender. There are 250 projects awaiting final approval, and when all the developments are added up, they could increase the population to 1.2 million from the current 435,000. Since land is still being assembled, more development seems certain to follow.
Many of Simcoe County's 17 towns and townships don't want to be shackled by the province's IGAP. They make initial decisions on applications while the county council, which is in charge of the overall growth strategy, has the final say.
Innisfil has approved two subdivisions that could house, in total, about 75,000 people. One is proposed by developer Mario Cortellucci, whose name now graces a local skating rink after he made a $2 million donation to the new sports centre.
The two projects would give the town about one-third of the new population the province says it wants for all of Simcoe County.
The IGAP recommends settling 90,000 residents in the new subdivision at the north end of Innisfil, but both plans approved by the town are outside that area.
"We identified where we'd put them independent of the consultant's work," says Robert McAuley, the town's director of planning and development.
The same thing is happening across southern Simcoe. And even when projects are turned down, they don't disappear. New Tecumseth rejected a 53,000-person subdivision on a potato farm between Alliston and Beeton, but the developer "indicated they'll be back," Bender says.
Bradford West Gwillimbury is pushing against another provincial constraint. Last November, it approved a business park and mall at Highway 88 and Highway 400 that would cover nearly 500 hectares of land the IGAP said should remain farms. This week, over protests from Bond Head residents, it approved a subdivision to house up to 4,000 people.
Calgary-based Walton International Group Inc. has purchased 1,400 hectares between Tottenham and Beeton, on behalf of investors from Canada and Asia. Its parcels are outside any current settlement areas so, under the provincial policy, they aren't eligible to be developed. But the company is certain that will change.
"We're confident that area is in the path of growth and development and should bode well for us and our investors," says Dean Lower, Walton's senior vice-president of international marketing. In 28 years in business, Lower notes, "We've never lost an investor's money."
County and community officials are careful to say the county will comply with provincial laws, but the underlying message can't be ignored.
"A lot of our member municipalities are warning that the 667,000 number is light for Simcoe," says the county's chief administrative officer, Mark Aitken. "We'll develop a plan that fits within these (provincial) concepts. That said, every official plan has conditions that are open to possible amendments."
The province, for now, is keeping an eye on the situation.
It did intervene to reduce the size of a large all-season recreation community at Big Bay Point on Lake Simcoe. But it didn't stop development on one of the last bits of natural shoreline on the lake, at a place called Moon Point, outside Orillia.
"The proposals are just that," says Bruce Singbush, a planner with Municipal Affairs. "They're in the process of being considered."
Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretson says he hopes any "local solution" would take the IGAP study as a foundation. He's "not ready to speculate" on what would happen if it doesn't.
A big stumbling block to development is Lake Simcoe, where the effluent from sewage treatment plants and runoff from farms and urban streets is leading to pollution and algae blooms, and decimating a once-thriving sports fishery.
"Poorly planned urban growth jeopardizes prime farmland, wetlands, forests and, ultimately, the water quality of Lake Simcoe," says Smith of Environmental Defence.
Advanced sewage treatment plants might help, but they're expensive and would probably just keep the lake's water quality from getting even worse.
Bringing employment to Simcoe would reduce commuting, but experience shows it's much harder to attract jobs than people, says Tony Coombs, of the anti-sprawl Neptis Foundation. "The track record isn't good."
Smith says the solution is to strictly control and plan development, in part by expanding the greenbelt as far north as Barrie, making any development beyond it too far away to commute comfortably to Toronto. He and other advocates of compact development argue that, with higher-density development and infilling on vacant land, most of the people forecast to move into the Horseshoe could be accommodated south of the greenbelt.
Others doubt expanding the greenbelt would curb development. "If you draw an artificial ring around a city, growth will eventually jump over it," McAuley argues.
People drive more than 100 kilometres to work at the Honda plant – farther than the trip from Barrie to Toronto, Cooney points out. "How far do you want to go from Toronto? You'd have to greenbelt half the province. I'm not sure that would be in the province's interest."
Gerretson says he'd like to expand the greenbelt. When and where hasn't been decided, but "it will depend on the reaction of the county and local councils."

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