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Ontario had no use for 6 parcels of land. An urban park is being carved out instead

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The rural town of Uxbridge, Ont., is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts.

It is home to some of Ontario’s best hiking trails and biking routes, with kilometres of pristine Greenbelt land, a smattering of farmhouses and boutique local businesses.

For decades, however, six parcels of land in the township have been shuttered to the public. Signs around roughly 1,300 acres of land in the leafy green town warn adventurers to keep out.

That’s about to change. Through sustained advocacy from the mayor and local community, the land that was guarded behind no-trespassing signs is undergoing a major transformation and is set to become Ontario’s newest provincial park.

The local mayor — a keen hiker and cyclist himself — said the plan to turn the six separate parcels into some kind of parkland, supplemented with whatever extra land the government can afford to add, has been years in the making.

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“It begins with a development that didn’t happen, in the early 2000s,” Uxbridge Mayor Dave Barton told Global News.

“Then, in 2007, there was a land swap with the developer that put that in the hands of Infrastructure Ontario. And these 1,300 acres have been sitting with Infrastructure Ontario since then.”

In September 2021, Infrastructure Ontario decided it had no use for the lands and put in motion plans to sell them, documents obtained by Global News through freedom of information laws show. The land was touted to other ministries and government bodies under rules that give the public sector first refusal on land sold by the Ontario government.

Ontario received at least one response: the Township of Uxbridge, which made a bid for the land, offering the government a “nominal fee” for it.

Uxbridge wanted to build a sprawling new municipal park, according to the documents. The lands, the government estimated, were worth almost $12 million — far out of the financial reach of the small town, which raised just over $16 million through taxes in total over the course of 2023.

“Trying to get 1,300 acres of valuable land to be given to a municipality in such a way that we could create a revenue-neutral park, there are a lot of obstacles,” Barton said. “One of the biggest ones is that we don’t have any money — we don’t.”

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The town’s bid said the park would be key to helping it recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, boosting the local economy through tourism and helping to increase the recreational options for residents of Uxbridge.

Officials with the Ford government looked at the proposal and came up with a plan of their own. They decided to keep the land they already owned and convert it into Ontario’s first urban provincial park.

Barton said he spoke to then-environment minister David Piccini, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy and Premier Doug Ford about his plan. He’s not sure which of them decided to push forward the provincial park but felt they were “all on board fairly early.”

Piccini, who now serves as minister of labour, told Global News the original request came from Mayor Barton but couldn’t pinpoint what sparked the decision to go from a local municipal park to a provincial project.

The idea “came up in conversations,” he said, adding that Ontario had “wanted to expand parks and the idea of an urban park” before settling on Uxbridge.

Whoever it was that pushed the idea through, Barton said it’s been on a “rapid track” since the plan was agreed.

When Ontario tabled its budget in March 2023, it included a promise to begin “exploring the creation of a new provincial protected area” in Uxbridge.

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A couple of months later, at the end of May, then-environment minister Piccini wrote to Minister of Infrastructure Kinga Surma asking her not to sell the Uxbridge land to anyone.

“After consideration and engagement with the Township, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has decided to retain the properties to explore the creation of a new urban provincial park,” Piccini wrote on May 31 in a letter obtained using freedom of information laws.

“The hold request included in the attached business case would prevent the properties from being placed for sale on the open market while the province continues to consider the establishment of a new provincial park.”

The business case also said the government would bear the cost of maintaining the land, studying it and opening the proposed park.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks told Global News in January that huge strides on the proposed park had been made since Piccini asked for the land not to be sold.

Online consultations have been held, along with comments from Indigenous stakeholders. The spokesperson said that “over the coming months” the government would analyze the comments as it comes to a final decision.

Although the province is, technically, still weighing the park proposal, a government source said the plan is going full steam ahead and that consultations are a necessary step, not a sign Ontario is backing away.

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Public comments for the proposed park were solicited between October and December 2023. A previous survey on the issue had seen 4,200 responses and 75 per cent support.

The government is planning to take the necessary legal and regulatory steps to designate the land during the summer, which will then trigger work on a park management plan. That plan will decide the amenities the park will provide and how it will run.

Mayor Barton said he doesn’t expect the park to include overnight camping.

The provincial spokesperson also said there will be limited access and use or development of the proposed park area during the planning process. “When the final park management plan is released, in 2025, we will take a gradual and phased in approach to park operations and any new park development,” the spokesperson added.

Barton is confident it will be a massive boost for small businesses in his town.

“It’s going to be phenomenal,” he said.

“We’re a small town, we’re in the Greenbelt, we can’t grow like areas like Pickering and Ajax and Markham. So, if we’re going to have strong, unique, cool restaurants, that are really, really successful, we’re going to have to do that with tourists. And this is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

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