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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Innisfil fears Barrie land grab

Innisfil residents Ron and Nancy Flood make no bones about their dislike for their neighbour to the north, the City of Barrie, which happens to be one of Ontario's fastest growing municipalities.

To the Floods, whose family has lived on the scenic shore of Lake Simcoe for 70 years, Barrie is big, badly planned and rapacious. The city's population has more than doubled, to 128,000, in just 15 years.

Their concern now is that Barrie is seeking to annex yet another chunk of their town (pop. 31,000) – and potentially the most lucrative part, the "assessment-rich" commercial-industrial area planned along both sides of Highway 400 at Innisfil Beach Rd.

Innisfil and Barrie have a long history of animosity and suspicion. After a series of voluntary annexations, Innisfil decided enough was enough when Barrie gobbled another 3,561 developable hectares.

That battle, in the late 1970s, went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. A truce emerged through the Barrie-Innisfil Annexation Act of 1981, which said Barrie wouldn't pursue future annexations until 2012 unless Innisfil agreed. But with Barrie on the prowl again for land, this round between the two neighbours is shaping up as yet another David vs. Goliath match.

When boundary discussions that have gone on quietly for 1 1/2 years broke off earlier this year, Innisfil Mayor Brian Jackson didn't mince words. Barrie, he said, was acting like a bully.

The Floods fear that if Barrie succeeds in grabbing more of mostly rural Innisfil, it would seriously hurt their town and result in even higher property taxes than the $6,800 they're already paying on their modest beachfront home north of Alcona, part of a prime lakefront neighbourhood that has seen the arrival of monster year-round cottages.

If Barrie snaps up Innisfil's employment lands, "we will just be dust in the wind," says Ron Flood, a retired Canadian Forces soldier.

"Without that tax base, I don't know what we would do," said Flood. "We would be going broke ... I don't need any more tax (hikes), I can assure you."

In past years, Barrie has had its way in annexing parts of neighbouring municipalities – including the former Innisfil property where a Molson plant sits – usually for a price.

Part of the subtext to the current rivalry is the Barrie Agricultural Society's recent decision to reject slot machines on its grounds, which prompted the Barrie Raceway to move to Innisfil. The reborn Georgian Downs, which pumps about $4 million a year into Innisfil's coffers, has been open since late 2001.

Now, nearly built out and hungry for more industrial and commercial land, Barrie covets another chunk of Innisfil but tiny Innisfil is fighting back.

About two years ago, Innisfil drew up ambitious plans to develop more than 800 hectares around the racetrack – mostly owned by developer Fred DeGasperis – in hopes of creating jobs for residents and much-needed tax revenue. Those plans are central to the municipality's dream of growing to 105,000 people over the next 25 years.

It wanted to capitalize on the province's designation of Simcoe County, where Innisfil sits, as an area for growth, in what's known as the Inter-Governmental Action Plan – and the fact that development is leapfrogging past the Greenbelt north to Barrie.

Big developers such as DeGasperis and Mario Cortellucci and others have bought up huge swaths of land in Innisfil, which along with its southern neighbour Bradford West Gwillimbury is poised for growth.

They include not just the industrial lands Innisfil wants to develop near Highway 400 and Innisfil Beach Rd., but a large chunk of land bordering either side of the highway to the south and the so-called moratorium lands (about 2,500 hectares) in northern Innisfil which were the subject of the Barrie-Innisfil Annexation Act.

These are the farm fields that Barrie promised not to pursue until 2012 – lands that promise to pour untold wealth into municipal coffers in the future.

But when Innisfil went to Barrie in 2005 asking to link its water and sewer pipes to those that service Barrie's industrial south, it got a curt "No" – despite the town's willingness to cover the $80 million cost through development charges, potentially from the developers.

The alternative, building separate lines east toward Lake Simcoe, could cost three times as much.

The refusal prompted the talks between the two municipalities, which went on with the help of a provincial facilitator until Barrie walked away from a yet-undisclosed offer by Innisfil this spring.

Neither side will discuss details, but Jackson was clearly miffed by the refusal of what he said was a fair offer. Soon after, he released results of a poll showing that Barrie residents were not happy with the quality of life brought on by rapid growth, gridlock and plans to boost Barrie's population.

The release, Jackson bluntly told the Star, "says in a nice way, `Barrie, we don't want you to annex our town. Stop being a bully. Come to the table and negotiate.'

"And by the way, your city residents don't really agree with your position. They don't want to see the city grow for various reasons (including) gridlock, quality of life, these sorts of things."

Rather than expand into Innisfil, Jackson wants Barrie to look at options such as intensification, growing upwards or redeveloping existing areas.

Barrie's lead negotiator, councillor Mike Ramsay, says talks broke off because Barrie learned of a push by the local conservation authority to lower the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Simcoe, a threat to the coldwater fishery. Septic tanks and sewage are among the sources of phosphorus contamination.

Ramsay said Barrie's negotiating team decided to "suspend" talks while allowing their technical staff and that of Innisfil and Simcoe County to come up with models as to how much growth Lake Simcoe could bear and how much sewage they could handle.

Possible limitations on how much industrial and commercial development can safely be linked with Lake Simcoe could well determine the outcome of negotiations between Barrie and Innisfil – if and when they resume. Ramsay says Barrie's self-interest in expanding into Innisfil was a central part of the negotiations. The city needs about 1,000 more hectares of employment land to meet future economic needs, he said.

"Barrie needs to grow, Innisfil wants to grow and economically develop," and the only way for Barrie to grow is on similar lands to the south, Ramsay said. "So when you have two communities that are eyeing the same lands, you have to negotiate as amicably as possible."

Asked how residents might feel about losing potential jobs and revenue yet again near the Highway 400 corridor, Innisfil's chief administrative officer, Lawrence Allison, carefully chooses his words:

"There is a historical perception in the community that Innisfil has continued to lose lands and Barrie has continued to grow in a somewhat unabated and uncontrolled fashion," he says.

Allison said that for Innisfil, the stakes are high and "council's number one priority is servicing employment lands along that corridor."

Asked how much assessment revenue was potentially at stake, he would only say "a lot."

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