Plans for Greenbelt expansion should include agricultural lands, say GTHA environmental advocates

A sign marking where the Greenbelt begins in York Region. Global News

Environmental advocates are welcoming the Ford government’s plan to expand the Greenbelt, and say that plan should include protecting so-called “white belt” land from being used for urban growth.

In a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Defence coalition, the group of more than 90 advocates highlighted specific actions that the provincial government should take in order to expand the Greenbelt.

On top of immediate actions like recommending the Ford government acknowledge and release the results of public consultation done in 2017 under the previous Liberal government, the report also urges the province to consider long-term actions like including agriculturally rich land under the umbrella of protection that the Greenbelt offers.

Read more: Ontario looking to expand greenbelt to include Paris-Galt Moraine, urban rivers

“There are various lands under development threat that should also be considered, such as … some Whitebelt lands adjacent to the Greenbelt that are in danger of being fast-tracked for development,” said Tim Gray, executive director of the Environmental Defence in a statement following the provincial announcement.

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Some of those white belt lands are being eyed by the city of Hamilton for urban expansion as part of its growth plan up to 2051.

Dr. Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, said that land — including an area in Stoney Creek known as the Elfrida Growth Area — is too agriculturally valuable to be used for urban expansion.

“The majority of the land there is the primest of the prime [agricultural] land. We have farmers telling us that, and speaking out against this idea of growing houses on land that we should be growing food on.”

She said part of the problem is provincial targets calling for the city’s population to soar to 820,000 — an increase of 238,000 residents — by 2051.

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“What we’re hearing back in the draft version of this land needs assessment process that the city is going through is that they’re likely to gobble up all of that white belt land to accommodate future growth,” said Lukasik.

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“And … that’s crazy, that this province is forcing a 30-year planning horizon and requiring municipalities to plan that far into the future, because who can predict what’s going to happen that far into the future?”

Read more: Bill Kelly: David Crombie’s resignation from Greenbelt Council sends a strong message

It’s an area of serious concern for Drew Spoelstra, vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and a farmer in Ancaster.

During a virtual rally hosted by Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas NDP MPP Sandy Shaw, Spoelstra said it’s up to the province to implement policies that will prevent urban boundaries from encroaching upon farmland.

“Ontario’s farmland only amounts to five per cent arable land for agriculture. That’s not a whole lot of land. And when it gets gobbled up by development, it certainly creates challenges for farm operators and farm businesses across the province.”

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Spoelstra pointed to the pandemic as a factor that has drastically changed the world in a short span of time and said ensuring Ontario’s farmlands can continue to support the province over the next 30 decades should be part of the government’s plans for growth.

“We need to take another look at this. We need to pull back on expanding that urban boundary into farmland. It’s a long way to 2050. And you know, right now, I think those numbers that the growth plan targets … may need to have another look at them.”

Read more: Ford government to strip some powers of conservation authorities 

The announcement about expanding Ontario’s Greenbelt came from Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, on Wednesday.

Clark stressed that the Ford government does not plan to entertain any proposals to remove land from the Greenbelt or any proposals that would open the environmentally-sensitive area to development.

When asked whether the province would consider adding any of the white belt lands to the expansion, Clark said they would only be focusing on areas mentioned in the announcement — the Paris Galt Moraine, as well as areas surrounding the Don River in Toronto and Duffins Creek in Ajax and Pickering.

“We’re not changing the existing Greenbelt the way it’s structured today,” said Clark. “The Greenbelt expansion that we’re reviewing covers the two areas, as part of the consultation.”

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The Greenbelt was created by the Ontario government in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area from development.

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