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Environmentalists question legality of York Region official plan

Urban expansion into Oak Ridges Moraine, Greenbelt lands still subject to provincial approval
Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager with Environmental Defence, says York Region lacks the authority to put protected Greenbelt lands in its settlement boundary.

York Region environmentalists are questioning the legality of the region’s newly passed official plan and its expansion into protected lands.

The plan passed June 30 includes new swaths of protected Oak Ridges Moraine land now expected to be open for future development, subject to provincial approval. Environmental advocacy organization Environmental Defence, with other York Region groups, is saying this makes the plan “illegal” and would run counter to the province's promises around Greenbelt protection.

York Region lacks the authority to put protected lands into its settlement boundary, according to Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager at Environmental Defence.

“The (provincial) government would actually need to itself decide to start dismantling the Greenbelt,” Pothen said, adding that it “is simply not available for municipalities to add to their settled area boundary.” 

The official plan has garnered controversy due to the amount the urban boundary is expanding, as well as pushing into environmentally protected lands. Council opted to approve a proposal from Whitchurch-Stouffville to include the development of Oak Ridges Moraine lands around 19th Avenue and Highway 404, subject to ministerial approval. 

York Region planning staff recommended regional council not support the motion. A report said the plan is largely otherwise consistent with provincial plans, but the Whitchurch-Stouffville resolution would not conform.

The official plan aims to accommodate expected growth in York Region over the next 30 years, with the population expected to go from 1.1 million to 2.02 million. Councillors have argued that urban expansion is necessary to accommodate that growth in several instances, but environmental advocates have questioned that. 

“All of it is beyond what York Region needs to meet the population and employment minimums mandated by the province,” Stop Sprawl York Region member Irene Ford said in a news release.

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor voted against the plan and said he felt the urban expansion was going too far and that late amendments did not have enough information. Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh voted in favour of the plan, indicating he felt municipalities know how to guide their own growth best.

Another outstanding issue is Regional Official Plan Amendment 7 (ROPA 7), which council approved to allow rezoning of 1,400 acres of Greenbelt land at the south end of the region from agricultural to rural in a bid to create more recreational space. Staff said there is still uncertainty as to whether it conforms to the Greenbelt plan.

“It is expected that should the minister of (municipal affairs and housing) not approve ROPA 7, the (region's official plan) will be modified,” a staff report said. 

Though he considers the plan illegal, Pothen said that does not come with punishment like jail time. Still, he said he does not think the province will be able to sign off on it. He said he does not think the province has the political will to open up the Greenbelt after it reversed course on a bill to do that in the last term.

“The government would be facing an onslaught like it has never seen,” Pothen said, adding opening up even a small part of the Greenbelt would have major implications. “Voters are strongly opposed to taking land out of the Greenbelt. That is something that all Ontarians of all political stripes agree on.”