Peggy Stevens, Dave Kempton, and the rest of Drawdown Newmarket-Aurora were ready to go big in a fight against a proposal to develop environmentally protected land.
The environmentalist advocacy organization joined a chorus of concerned residents in January opposed to the proposal by Shining Hill Estates Inc. to develop the southwest corner of Newmarket on land zoned environmental protection at 16250, 16356 and 16450 Yonge St.
But come November, with town staff recommending rezoning the land to let development proceed, the group’s tune had changed. They were willing to tentatively support the development if it could meet some targets for environmental sustainability. Council heeded their words Nov. 15 and delayed a decision to negotiate with the developer.
“We were thinking we have to mount an even bigger opposition, so we sort of went down that road for a while,” Stevens said. “Gradually, we began to consider that opposition might not actually result in anything. So by tempering, or moving away, from straight opposition to qualified support, we felt we could possibly have some influence in seeing it not just be more urban sprawl, but actually be a more sustainable, livable community."
The land stretching between Newmarket and Aurora is greenspace and is partially under the provincial Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, meant to protect a specific stretch of environmentally sensitive land. Newmarket separately zoned much of the quadrant as environmentally protected in 2003.
But Shining Hill is proposing to build a mix of “residential, institutional, commercial office, parks and open spaces” on the land, and is seeking rezoning to make it possible. The idea attracted dozens of letters and deputations in opposition at a January meeting, but staff has argued the development is needed to provide more housing in an affordability crisis.
Instead of outright opposition, Drawdown Newmarket-Aurora is now asking for the development to be low-impact, location efficient, low-emissions and feature affordable housing. They have also asked for some of the lands that will be unused to get stronger protection.
But Kempton said it was very difficult for some members to back down on opposing all development there.
“It was an internal struggle. We’re very principled people,” he said. “But then the realization (came that) if we were to do it, we might have some influence on the outcome. Letting the town know we would support this if we were able to negotiate, that would then give them a stronger negotiating position.”
Council was receptive to the Drawdown's presentation and resident concerns, and Mayor John Taylor said this is a chance to do development differently. He said council would meet in-camera to discuss mechanisms to negotiate with the developer, with the issue coming back for a decision in January.
But there are still those who oppose the project and the idea of developing on Oak Ridges Moraine land.
Anthony Schneider lives on Old Bathurst Street, across Bathurst Street, which would have access into the development. He said he opposes Newmarket losing more greenspace, though the land is presently inaccessible to the public. He also said there are concerns with traffic congestion.
“The moraine is being chipped away at and will continue to be assaulted by development plans. It’s time to take a stand and keep these properties, these lands protected, because once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” he said. “Increasing development, increasing traffic and congestion, that’s not what I signed up for when I moved to Newmarket.”
Steve Gilchrist of the Newmarket-based Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust said York Region already has enough zoned land to accommodate the growth to come.
The Newmarket land in question is designated as a “settlement area” under the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, allowing development there in the province’s eyes. But Gilchrist questioned the “carte-balance” approach with the developer asking to rezone a wide section of the land before a more detailed proposal.
“That’s distressing, and it flies in the face of the normal mechanisms the public would have to provide feedback in an informed fashion,” Gilchrist said. “The public should be very concerned about the sheer size of this proposal.”
NewmarketToday did not receive a reply before publication deadline from Malone Given Parsons, the planning firm that represented Shining Hill Estates Nov. 15.
But Don Given complimented Drawdown's presentation in his council deputation Nov. 15. He also said this approval is a first step, with years of planning to come to complete the development.
"Their constructive approach is certainly welcome," Given said of Drawdown's presentation. "I'm very familiar with the kind of issues they've raised and I'm very happy you have that kind of mood among your residents."
Gilchrist said council seeking to negotiate for environmental and affordability guarantees is the right approach.
“That is precisely the direction municipalities should always take. There should be a clear vision of what the long-term goal is, and then work toward that,” Gilchrist said. “I’m glad to hear that was at least the initial response.”
Meanwhile, Shining Hill Estates is already developing a subdivision Aurora, which did not zone the land area as environmental protection. In Aurora, a scaled-back pitch is for 87 detached homes, five townhouse blocks, a park block and a school block. But the Aurora proposal has also faced concerns about the environment and the uncertainty about the Newmarket side.
Stevens said the Newmarket council decision is a “cautious win” for Drawdown. But she said they will watch what happens next.
“We certainly will be paying attention,” Stevens said. “If the town and developer cannot come to some kind of agreement — this needs to be a fundamentally different kind of development — our expectation would be the town would say no.”