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Newmarket environmentalists celebrate halt to Greenbelt development

'Ecstatic relief,' local environmentalist says as province reverse course on Greenbelt
One of many homemade signs at a Newmarket protest about the Greenbelt.

Newmarket's Melanie Duckett-Wilson has fought hard to get the provincial government to back off its plans to build on the Greenbelt.

She has organized and participated in the rallies held in the region outside of MPP offices, protesting the provincial efforts to put residential development on those protected lands. She has also pressured Newmarket-Aurora MPP Dawn Gallagher Murphy to put a citizen petition before the legislature calling on the government to reverse its Greenbelt decision.

On Sept. 21, the efforts of her and others upset by the Greenbelt decision bore fruit, with Premier Doug Ford announcing he would back off those development plans.

“It does make a difference,” Duckett-Wilson said, adding she feels “ecstatic relief…gratitude for all of the Ontarians and First Nations from every type of group that you can think of, except perhaps for developers, that came together and continued and persisted.”

The announcement means Greenbelt lands throughout Ontario will not be developed for residential homes, including lands just west of Newmarket and King estimated to add 15,000 people if development went ahead.

The decision comes after months of public pressure, including in Newmarket and York Region. An auditor general’s report blasted the decision-making behind the move to open the Greenbelt. It and other studies also highlighted that there was enough land to build on to meet provincial housing targets without using the Greenbelt.

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor expressed on social media that he is celebrating the news.

“While we clearly need to build more homes the Greenbelt should have been off limits,” Taylor said. “While the decision was poor and the process was highly flawed, I want to thank the premier for listening to the people of Ontario. The need to provide more housing still exists, and I am committed to doing all we can in Newmarket given the infrastructure we have. I believe after this policy attempt and failure — the Greenbelt is safe forever.”

Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas similarly praised the news.

“I’ve long advocated that Ontario has more than enough land to address the housing crisis without having to encroach on prime agricultural farmland and environmentally sensitive areas,” Mrakas said. "To solve the housing crisis, we need an all-hands-on-deck effort from all levels of government and our partners in the development community.”

Duckett-Wilson said Ford had to respond to all the public pressure and his approval ratings dropping.

“Overriding all of it right now, is the hope. There is still hope in the democratic process and when people feel strongly enough, and get involved enough, that we can make the changes we want to see," she said. 

Still, she said there are many concerns with the government’s development plans and treatment of the environment. She said the Greenbelt decision was not isolated, with issues like the Bradford Bypass and the weakening of conservation authorities leading up to it. On those issues, she said environmentalist rallies will continue.

“There’s still some really critical work here to happen,” she said. “This change of stance in the government, for whatever reasons, brings hope to all those other causes.”

Southlake hospital site

The Greenbelt news calls into question the direction of Southlake Regional Health Centre’s future second hospital site.

After the province decided to open Greenbelt lands in King, the municipal government pushed for the province to expedite the site selection process and have a new Southlake hospital go onto some of those lands, donated by the landowner. King, Southlake and developers affiliated with Rice Group met on Nov. 1 about the possibility of a Southlake hospital site on those lands, a few days before the province announced opening up the Greenbelt. 

The auditor general’s report said lands transferred out of the Greenbelt was done at the behest of developers, including these lands in King just west of Newmarket.

Southlake is in the midst of a selection process for a new site and plans in the future to address patient loads too large for its current site alone. However, the hospital had never publicly indicated a preference for a site and had not yet approved or announced anything regarding the proposed King site.

NewmarketToday asked Southlake to comment on what the Greenbelt reversal means for the lands as a prospective site for the new hospital. In response, communications strategist Danae Theakston said: "Southlake continues to work with the provincial government on our redevelopment project and site selection process to ensure exceptional care continues to be provided to the communities we serve."

Asked for comment on the Greenbelt decision, the Township of King said: "We are continuing to assess yesterday’s provincial announcement to determine what it means for the Township of King. Aligned with our vision and values, King is committed to continuing its proud history of serving the growing, diverse needs of its communities and citizens."