It’s been more than a week since the Ontario government launched a public consultation on expanding the multi-region Greenbelt, but advocates say the focus of the consultation is narrow and there are calls to enact critical environmental protections outside of the Greater Toronto Area.
“It’s always going to be a discussion about should we do this, but I think if you look what happened 15, 16 years out now, broad agreement among society is that it was a key mechanism for starting to get us to think differently about land use in southern Ontario,” Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, recently told Global News.
“We really need to keep farmland and ecological function in the area if we’re going to keep living here for multiple generations.”
Gray is one of many who have taken a keen interest in the consultation. It was on Feb. 17 when Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark announced the new call for input that will focus on protecting the Paris Galt Moraine, which runs approximately between Caledon and Brantford and to the existing Greenbelt.
Clark also indicated officials are looking at protecting urban river valleys and certain high-density areas. Based on the announcement, lands around places like the Don River in Toronto and land around Duffins Creek in Ajax and Pickering could be designated as Greenbelt lands.
He emphasized the government will not consider requests to remove any lands from the protected area as part of the current consultation.
“I want to be clear. We will not in any way entertain any proposals that will move lands in the Greenbelt, or open the Greenbelt lands to any kind of development,” Clark said during a news conference.
However, the announcement on Greenbelt consultation came amid ongoing planning for the proposed Highway 413 (in the GTA West highway corridor study area), which cuts through part of the Paris Galt Moraine. The proposed highway is a project all provincial opposition parties have pledged to scrap if elected during the 2022 election.
Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario and MPP for Guelph, introduced a private member’s bill in 2019 to protect the moraine, which is a source of drinking water for communities such as Guelph. The bill has been in the committee stage of the legislative process since March of that year.
While he and others have praised the Ford government for moving to expand protections, Schreiner said it’s time to take a more expansive approach to protect at-risk lands.
“Let’s have an honest conversation about expanding the Greenbelt and let’s have the government pull back on some of the things it’s doing that actually threatens the integrity of the Greenbelt,” he said.
“We are going to grow in population in the region and we need to make sure that growth is done in a way that protects those vital wetlands, natural heritage features, green space that is needed to protect us from flooding especially, but also plays a vital role in cleaning and recharging our drinking water.”
“My concern is that the government is moving forward with plans that will disproportionately benefit certain people, particularly land speculators and deep-pocketed developers.”
What is the Greenbelt and what kind of protection does it offer?
The Greenbelt — the world’s largest permanently protected green space — is a 7,200-square-kilometre area that borders the Greater Golden Horseshoe region around Lake Ontario. It was created by the previous Liberal government in 2005 to protect agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands.
However, in recent years the Greenbelt has come back into focus amid several proposed changes that were the subject of public scrutiny.
Premier Doug Ford generated controversy during the 2018 election campaign when he initially pledged to open parts of the area to build housing – a promise he backtracked on after facing intense criticism.
Later that year, after forming the government, Bill 66 was announced, which would have created a specialized planning tool for municipalities that would have allowed them under some circumstances to override certain laws, including those that safeguard the Greenbelt. It was touted as a measure that would expedite economic development.
Critics said Bill 66 contained vague language that puts established protections at risk. Under the portion of the law that was scrapped, municipalities working on a specific project – like attracting a major employer to the region – would have been able to pass a by-law to request provincial approval to override certain regulations.
However, in 2019, Clark announced the government heard from legislators, municipalities and stakeholders who were concerned about the impact the bill could have on the protected lands.
After the 2020 budget was announced, Ontario Greenbelt Council chair and former Toronto mayor David Crombie was one of several people to resign over measures in the omnibus financial blueprint that Crombie said would gut environmental protections in the province. He contended Schedule 6 of the bill would strip power from local conservation authorities and expand ministerial authority on zoning and other potentially sensitive environmental issues.
Clark, who’s tasked with overseeing the Council, said the measures outlined in Schedule 6 don’t apply to lands within the Greenbelt. He reiterated the government’s intention to not interfere with the existing Greenbelt. He also announced at around the time of the resignations a $30-million announcement to create and restore wetlands across Ontario as well as partnering with non-profit organization Ducks Unlimited Canada.
David Donnelly, a partner with Donnelly Law who specializes in environmental law, is familiar with the Greenbelt legislation through his work with Environmental Defence Canada and various legal cases. He said the best part about the Greenbelt Act is that it is “absolute” in dictating what is and isn’t allowed.
“That’s why it’s so loved, people can count on it, they trust it, it works.”
He said while it comes down to “political will” in terms of what areas will or won’t be folded into the Greenbelt, there are general indicators and guidelines for property owners.
“If you’re inside a settlement area, inside the urban growth boundary, then you have nothing to fear about the Greenbelt,” Donnelly said.
“The Greenbelt only touches land that is beyond what is called the urban growth boundary. In other words, you’re not scheduled for development. So if you bought land and you think you’re going to develop someday, you’re nothing but a speculator and sometimes speculators win and sometimes speculators lose – fair is fair.”
With respect to the consultation, he said it’s a “very good thing,” especially when it comes to protecting the Paris Galt Moraine. But Donnelly was dubious about the promotion surrounding urban rivers.
“There’s nothing wrong with doing it, but it’s not a significant Greenbelt accomplishment. The land is all in public ownership, it’s mostly owned by conservation authorities or municipalities and most of it is hazard land,” he said.
“While cosmetically you’re doing something, I can’t get too excited about doing that. It should just be done as a matter of course.”
Anastasia Lintner, special projects counsel with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, also said the process is “welcome news” and that she and others are looking forward to posting advice.
“I see it as a conversation-opening opportunity to let the government know where and why and how the Greenbelt needs to be expanded,” she said.
She emphasized the need to protect water systems, wetlands and watersheds.
Proposed Highway 413 risk to farmland, watersheds, rivers: advocates
Gray, Schreiner and Donnelly all called for the proposed Highway 413 to be scrapped, citing a potential major environmental risk.
“If you completely pave these areas over, what it means is that they dry up in the summer because there is no source of ongoing seeping out of the forests and wetlands,” Gray said, outlining how areas downstream would therefore be impacted.
“Every time we have one of these huge rain events or big snow melts in the spring, you’re dealing with massive flooding so it makes them really, really unstable and of course the water becomes increasingly polluted, so they become a source of salt, oil and all the other things coming off urban landscapes which all end up in our lake, which we then get to drink.
“We end up with drinking water contamination, flooding, lack of recreational opportunities, lack of ability to swim in any of these areas. You can’t pave over entire watersheds of rivers and expect them to have any kind of viability or not be a threat to the cities around them, so they really need to be protected to maintain their function.”
When it comes to agricultural lands in the corridor, Schreiner said that’s something that’s cause for concern. He said the food farming sector contributes approximately $50 billion to the provincial economy and 42 per cent of Ontario’s farmland is in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), noting only some of that land is in the Greenbelt.
“If we pave over the land that grows the food that leads to those jobs and is leading to the GTHA being a strong manufacturing hub when it comes to food production, then we put those economic benefits at risk,” Schreiner said.
Meanwhile, Donnelly said the proposed highway conflicts with the consultation goal of protecting the Paris Galt Moraine even though there are certain allowances for infrastructure in the Greenbelt.
“That really undoes most of what they’re trying to accomplish. I mean, it’s nice to add parts to the Greenbelt, but at the same time if you’re running a superhighway through the Greenbelt that cancels out any benefit or ecological services benefit of expanding the Greenbelt. They really are sucking and blowing at the same time,” he said.
“In other words, they want a free pass for Highway 413 and that really is not — I don’t think that’s a fair way to characterize the Greenbelt.
“It’s true you can have limited infrastructure in the Greenbelt to service already-approved areas, but building a superhighway is not the intention of the Greenbelt.”
When asked about the environmental concerns raised about the Highway 413 project, a senior media spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, said regulation has been proposed to expedite the environmental assessment process but stressed there will be public consultations going forward.
“The proposed regulation, if approved, would ensure continued strong environmental oversight and protection while reducing timelines to allow the implementation of this critical infrastructure faster, if all conditions are met,” Gary Wheeler said in a statement to Global News.
He said the Ontario Ministry of Transportation would need to take a “comprehensive analysis of technical and environmental factors of locating, designing and implementing the proposed highway.”
Natasha Tremblay, a spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, said the planning for the GTA West corridor needs to happen now, with Ontario’s population expected to swell to 14.8 million people by 2051.
“More transit is critical, but we cannot rely on transit expansion alone to meet the needs of this region,” she wrote in a statement to Global News, while also saying the corridor is needed for goods movement.
“We developed the preferred route for the GTA West while keeping in mind the critical need to mitigate impacts to the Greenbelt. As the project moves ahead, we will carefully consider all potential effects it may have on the Greenbelt.”
Calls to protect Simcoe County, other regions against development
When asked about areas that should be folded into the Greenbelt Act, Simcoe County and areas surrounding Lake Simcoe kept being raised by advocates.
“Probably the largest single, outstanding failure of the process is the failure to identify Simcoe County as being the wild west of Ontario,” Donnelly said.
“It’s an obvious favour to the development friends that they’ve omitted Simcoe County from careful consideration.”
He said the towns of Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil have been “under the gun” in terms of development, highlighting a proposed massive hub surrounding a new proposed GO Transit station in Innisfil.
Donnelly and Schreiner raised concerns about a large amount of infrastructure that would be needed to service development in the two communities.
“When you start pumping sewage over watershed divides, I think you’re asking for trouble,” Donnelly said.
Gray raised concerns that phosphorous runoff from agricultural lands combined with municipal sewage are both potentially detrimental to Lake Simcoe given the size of the lake, which serves as a source of drinking water for Barrie and Orillia as well as a tourism destination for cottagers.
“It really can’t support a lot more urban development in the watershed, so a really effective way to contain the growth is to require it occur within the existing cities that are already there and not let it sprawl out onto the farmland all around the lake,” he said.
Gray said if the province is looking at areas for redevelopment, he said he wanted to see certain existing urban areas in Hamilton be reviewed for opportunities instead of undeveloped, more natural areas.
“(There are) massive, massive opportunities for redevelopment and reimagination of large areas of that city that could house literally hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
Donnelly agreed about looking at swaths of land in Hamilton along the escarpment.
Looking elsewhere, Schreiner said moraine areas in southern Ontario are under stress and said the moraines in Waterloo and Orangeville should see protections.
In Durham Region, parcels of land set aside for decades for a potential Pickering Airport continue to draw calls for inclusion into the Greenbelt or the Rouge National Urban Park.
The current consultation is looking at adding Duffins Creek, which runs through Pickering and Ajax, into the Greenbelt. However, Gray and others want to see protections for Carruthers Creek watershed, which he said is under threat from development.
Gray also raised concerns about lands near Port Perry and Lake Scugog, saying there have been issues with the dumping of toxic materials.
“It’s very shallow and very sensitive to any kind of input,” he said.
Global News spoke with Region of Durham chair John Henry about the ongoing consultation. He said large portions of Durham Region are covered by the Greenbelt. However, in terms of land use planning being contemplated by the Region, he cited Envision Durham. It’s a comprehensive review of the area’s official plan and development areas and will be going to the Region’s planning committee in March and then out for consultation.
As for what comes next in the process, residents and organizations have until April 19 to submit comments through the Environmental Registry of Ontario or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schreiner called for all input on the Greenbelt to be acted upon.
“If the government is doing this process with integrity, they will listen and respond to those submissions even though they are outside the scope and the map the minister presented the other day,” he said.
Adam Wilson, Clark’s director of communications, said in a statement the call for feedback “could lead to the largest expansion of the Greenbelt since its creation in 2005.”
When asked if the government will entertain protecting areas beyond the Paris Galt Moraine and urban rivers or if there plans to fold in lands in areas raised like Simcoe County or near Lake Simcoe, or certain areas in the Durham, Hamilton and Waterloo regions, Wilson said the government will be reviewing all feedback.
“Our focused consultation is realistic, and we are confident it could net results that will add significantly to the Greenbelt,” he said.
“However, this is just the first step in our consultation, and feedback that we receive may identify and result in further opportunities to grow the Greenbelt.”
— With files from The Canadian Press