Ontario government moves to add Georgina forest land to Greenbelt, but questions over process linger

The former Maple Leaf Estates property near Woodbine Avenue and Metro Road North in Georgina. Nick Westoll / File / Global News

The Ontario government has announced its intention to formally incorporate 360 hectares of privately owned, environmentally sensitive land in Georgina into the provincial Greenbelt, but there are outstanding questions surrounding the proposed deal.

Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark announced on Wednesday the former Maple Lake Estates property, located partly within a larger parcel of land bounded by Woodbine Avenue, Deer Park Drive, Varney Road and Metro Road North, would also be protected under the Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO).

Under the proposal, it’s envisioned the land would be transferred to the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. The parcel itself is made up of a forest and significant wetlands, and it also immediately surrounds the Georgina water tower.

“We are protecting the North Gwillimbury forest for future generations,” he said.

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“Growing and enhancing the Greenbelt is a priority for the Ford government.”

However, the land is still in private hands and it’s not clear how the province will be acquiring the land to transfer to the conservation authorty. The property is currently marked by large signs saying it is owned by the development company DG Group.

Global News contacted DG Group on Wednesday to ask for reaction to the announcement as well as to ask if there are negotiations to transfer the land to the government, but a response wasn’t received by the time of publication.

When asked by Global News about why this particular parcel of land was singled out for inclusion into the Greenbelt amid many other land requests, the status of negotiations to acquire it, and what the provincial government might be paying for the property, a spokesperson for Clark reiterated the minister’s comments Wednesday morning. A timeline on the transfer process wasn’t released on Wednesday.

The history of the controversial Maple Lake Estates property goes back nearly 40 years. In 1984, the council at the time approved a development proposal for the land and a few years later the Ontario Municipal Board approved it, and certified by an order-in-council by the cabinet, with some changes. However, for years local politicians have been fighting against developing the site.

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Fast-forward to 2011 when the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance announced it was forming in response to a plan by DG Group to build a 1,073-unit subdivision.

In 2019, the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (the body that succeeded the Ontario Municipal Board) ordered that most of the site be designated as an environmental protection area in the municipality’s protection plan.

The alliance sent out an email on Wednesday asking people to “thank” local MPP and cabinet minister Caroline Mulroney for pushing the government to create a nature reserve on the site.

Meanwhile, Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk praised the announcement on Wednesday, calling the day one she has “dreamed of.”

“At times our paths may have been a little different in terms of how we would reach this point, but we all had the same goal of protecting these environmentally significant lands,” she wrote.

“While we plan for future growth we also need to balance that with protecting the environment. Today, we have received a special gift that we can give to future generations.”

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.

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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.

Earlier in 2021, the government announced it was holding a consultation on the Greenbelt but advocates have said the focus of the consultation was narrow and there were calls to enact critical environmental protections outside of the Greater Toronto Area and in other areas around Lake Simcoe. Officials noted more than 5,500 submissions were received.

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Clark commits to adding double the acres to Greenbelt for MZO

Clark promised on Wednesday to add more protected land to the Greenbelt every time it employs a political tool that fast-tracks land development.

Critics warned, however, that the move may signal the Progressive Conservative government’s plans to push through new projects without full consultation.

The government said Wednesday it will add two acres of land to the Greenbelt in southern Ontario for every acre of land developed through a minister’s zoning order, which gives the government power to fast-track development in a given area.

The pledge covers land involved in MZOs that have already been issued and development projects yet to be announced.

A spokesperson for Clark confirmed that at least 6,000 acres — or 2,400 hectares — of land will be added to the Greenbelt, based on 45 MZOs issued so far by the current government.

The Progressive Conservative government has argued it’s using the MZOs to speed up housing developments as the population grows.

But critics argue the tool is overused and allows potentially harmful development to go ahead without proper environmental consultation.

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Some said on Wednesday they were concerned the latest move indicated the government had plans for further developments it wanted to push through.

“(The government) is letting developers have at extremely valuable and environmentally sensitive lands, and pretending to replace it by with less valuable, less ecologically significant land,” NDP environment critic Sandy Shaw said in a statement.

“People are extremely concerned that this announcement is a warning sign that Ford is about to gift more extraordinary MZOs so developers can pave over wetlands and precious farmland.”

The Liberals expressed similar concerns.

“Trusting Doug Ford to protect green space is like trusting an arsonist with a pack of matches,” Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said in a Twitter post.

The Green party called the announcement a distraction from the government’s “environmentally destructive policies.”

“The government has been using MZOs far too loosely and many times in an attempt to override environmental concerns, when they could be used to strengthen environmental protections,” party leader Mike Schreiner said.

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“Greens will continue to lead the charge against Ford’s destructive, pro-sprawl agenda.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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