The provincial government has approved a major development in Durham Region that will add to the Durham Live casino and entertainment property.
But it could see a large swath of wetland paved over.
“What’s going on now is completely filling in the wetland, which was not part of the original proposal,” says Tim Gray, the executive director of local advocacy group Environmental Defence.
When originally proposed, the Durham Live property, which is being developed by Triple Properties, was announced to bring more than 10,000 jobs.
“Linking the casino and the jobs associated with that is disingenuous,” says Gray. “They’ll destroy about half of the overall 23-wetland complex that exists there.”
The land in question spans more than 55 acres of provincially significant wetlands, located on the west side of Squires Beach Road and between the 401 and Bayly Street in Pickering. The project, dubbed Lonestar, will be in the same area as the Pickering Casino but the land is crucial to the ecosystem and an important habitat for animals as well.
“The area is a really important stopover place for waterfowl coming off the lake,” Gray says. “It’s also important for clean runoff that is coming out of the city and goes through the wetlands before going to the lake.”
Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier, who was part of good faith negotiations before getting shut out, says the project “has been rammed through.”
“How are we supposed to negotiate with a group, Pickering and Durham Live, when they are being told by the minister of municipal affairs and housing that this is a done deal?”
As it stands, construction could go ahead on the lands, pending approval from the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), after a Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) was announced late Friday afternoon by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark. It was put in place after the City of Pickering requested the idea to help fast-track two developments, including Lonestar, which would involve a state-of-the-art film studio and be part of the Durham Live entertainment spot.
MZOs are often used as a planning tool and give ministers the power to override planning processes — without public consultation or the chance to appeal the idea.
“You basically have a complete loss of authority, autonomy and the ability of the public to have a say locally,” says Gray.
Global News has obtained audio detailing what the development could include. In a recent TRCA meeting, Pickering’s deputy mayor, Kevin Ashe, said Lonestar was an exciting new venture that will result in thousands of jobs. Ashe was heard saying it will take up to four million square feet and could be a warehousing building of some sort.
“This developer has a name that everyone would know, and perhaps gets deliveries often or not from them,” he told the board.
The statement appeared to point to the possibility of a new warehouse for a business like Amazon or a related corporation.
Collier says the big problem with this is increased traffic.
“We knew we were going to feel the traffic impacts of this before the MZO was requested by Durham Live and Pickering,” says Collier. “Now try adding four million square feet of commercial warehouse space and 1,650 residential units. That’s another several thousand vehicles per day on top of that.”
The Town of Ajax has always voiced concerns about traffic in the area, asking for a number of changes to help mitigate pressures that would be caused by people visiting the area. Collier, who says he made these requests in good-faith discussions over the project only to be cut out when the agreement was signed without him, says it’s disappointing.
“Not only have we been pushed out of the deal, but everything we had been negotiating over the last four months has just gone as well. Now the MZO has been approved and this thing is just going fully ahead. They don’t care what we think.”
Ashe says the City of Pickering recognizes there are traffic issues and there are some possible road changes in the works.
“There’s a plan to have another road that could connect Brock Road through to Church,” says Ashe. “So there are infrastructure discussions going on to help mitigate legitimate issues about traffic.”
Mayor Collier has now launched a full campaign against the project, calling it Save Don’t Pave, with the backing of Gray from Environmental Defence and a number of other partners.
Gray says the whole idea of MZOs is to help prevent larger problems in the future.
“We stopped destroying these wetlands by policy, by law, because we realized what we did to the Don River back in the 19th century were a mistake,” he says.
“We don’t want to keep doing them and that’s why we stopped doing them. So the idea of going back to the same old mistakes that we made in the past means we’re going to have to pay for all of this.”
The City of Pickering stands by its decision to order the MZO. Ashe says with the pandemic delaying the opening of the casino, jobs are top of mind. And these projects will provide 3,000 of them.
“From our perspective, it’s not really a choice between protecting the environment and securing much-needed investment. I think both can happen,” says Ashe.
“We’ll be working hard with our partners to achieve that.”
The Ministry of Natural Resources has asked the TRCA to enter into discussions about how all parties will look at environmental issues.
In a statement from the ministry responsible for the MZO, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Adam Wilson told Global News “the TRCA and the proponent have signed an agreement that would lead to the creation of ecological benefits that would meet or exceed any loss to the natural system.”
But Environmental Defence says it doesn’t work and the idea of creating something elsewhere is just an excuse.
“That type of wetland can’t be recreated,” says Gray.
Regardless of each party’s concerns, the TRCA still has to give permission to build before shovels can hit the ground.