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'People have forgotten': Environmental advocates lament York Region's sprawl plans

Former minister distressed to see 20 years of investments in long-term natural heritage preservation upended with York Region rezoning agriculturally protected lands to accommodate growth
20211208-Steve Gilchrist-JQ
Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust member and former minister Steve Gilchrist said there are fewer people engaged in land use rezoning and decisions.

Steve Gilchrist of Newmarket’s Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust said he can remember when people came out in the thousands to oppose development on protected land.

The former minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing said in 1999, public pressure was enough to get Richmond Hill and York Region politicians to reverse course on proposals to rezone public lands. Public opposition eventually led to the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act in 2001, letting only eight per cent of the land be developed in “settlement areas.”

But the same level of opposition did not manifest as York Region rezoned parts of the Oak Ridges Moraine in a series of planning decisions this fall, which Gilchrist spoke out against. 

“I guess the people have forgotten. It’s another generation of people who have moved to York Region. They aren’t familiar with the history perhaps, or as familiar, and they’re able to get away with this,” Gilchrist said, “and undo all the good that was done 20 years ago.”

York Region is updating its regional official plan and rezoned many lands anticipating rapid growth over the next 30 years. That includes stretches of the “whitebelt” — agriculturally designated land next to the Greenbelt, as well as parts of the Oak Ridges Moraine in Whitchurch-Stouffville. The region also separately passed Regional Official Plan Amendment (ROPA) 7, rezoning a portion of the Greenbelt in Markham and Vaughan to use it for park and recreational space to accommodate dense development elsewhere.

The debate has raged over the decisions, with environmental groups protesting the choices

“Once they’re done that, it’s free rein for developers to come in with site-specific applications,” Gilchrist said of the whitebelt. “You’ll have almost no chance of stopping them.”

But municipalities have argued the land-use changes are necessary, given York Region is projected to grow to 2.2 million people and 990,000 jobs by 2051 based on provincial projections.

East Gwillimbury has said it already has most of its landmass in the Greenbelt, and its whitebelt lands are needed for growth. Whitchurch-Stouffville has said the rezoned Oak Ridges Moraine Land in the 404 corridors, representing 62 hectares, is a logical place to expand as it is close to existing and future services.

York Region did not respond to an interview request to discuss the concerns and their planning direction. But in a provided statement, the region said the decisions are based on local municipal contexts but will follow good principles.

“If approved by the Province, these areas will adhere to the planning principles in the draft ROP of healthy, sustainable, complete communities with a strong economic base,” the region said. “It includes policies to ensure growth to 2051 materializes in a controlled and phased manner to support building complete communities for new residents.”

Environmental Defence has regularly opposed a slate of regional development decisions, arguing settlement boundary expansion is not needed to handle the growth to come. Program manager and land-use planning lawyer Phil Pothen said though municipalities have the power to decide how to accommodate growth, the province is allowing for it to happen in unsustainable ways, such as lowering density targets in developed areas from a combined 80 residents and jobs per hectare of land developed to 40 to 50.

York's draft official plan states best efforts will be made to reach a minimum of 50 people and jobs per hectare in the developable areas of towns and villages. 

“It is unfathomable that they would reduce the number of people and jobs per hectare while simultaneously claiming that more lands need to be opened up in order to create homes for people in need,” Pothen said.

As for the Greenbelt, Pothen said the province has promised not to touch it, and approving ROPA 7 would contradict that even if it is meant to be for recreational space. He noted though municipalities do not intend to let homes get built there, it is still beneficial for developers.

“It would allow developers to build on all the land within the settlement area boundary rather than having to maintain some of the lands as park space and green spaces,” Pothen said. “The idea is, you put it in the greenbelt, so you don't have to build it within existing neighbourhoods.”

The provincial auditor general recently has also weighed in on provincial planning direction. Although much of the Dec. 1 report is concerned with minister's zoning orders in the greater Golden Horseshoe, Bonnie Lysyk also questioned whether municipalities were meeting growth plan targets and recommended steps to ensure planning goals are met. 

“Much of the historical growth in the region occurred in the form of sprawl characterized by scattered, low-density development. This rapid growth and resulting urbanization have led to the loss of agricultural land and natural spaces, degradation in air and water quality, increased demand for major infrastructure, increased traffic congestion, increased risk of chronic diseases and unaffordable housing prices,” Lysyk said. 

She added though the updated growth plan objectives address this with intensification targets and greenfield protection, recent changes to planning policies and ministerial zoning orders have “undermined” the goals. 

As for ROPA 7, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark still has to decide. Ministry spokesperson Conrad Spezowka said it is under review, and the minister will have 120 days to make a decision after the application is determined to be complete. 

But other land-use decisions are still open to public scrutiny. The region is going through a public consultation process for the next few months on its draft official plan. It intends to finalize the plan in June before submitting it for a July deadline.

“The updated ROP includes policies to manage this growth by promoting future communities while protecting agricultural lands and advancing sustainability initiatives to mitigate the impact of climate change in the region,” the region said. 

However, Pothen hopes the upcoming provincial election — to be held by June 2 — could change the landscape and halt the process. 

“The fight is not over in York Region, it’s just shifted to a provincial sphere," he said. 

Gilchrist said it is disappointing to see the past 20 years of investments in long-term natural heritage preservation be upended.

“To see 20 years later, we’re going back down exactly the same road is so distressing. And I guess the local politicians figure out they can do it just because people have forgotten it,” he said. “It’s very disappointing, not just to the land trust but to any one of the dozens of environmental groups that have done good work in York Region in the years since to build on that initial protection.”

You can submit feedback on the regional official plan through