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'The precedent is very significant': Newmarket mayor on losing end in greenbelt development decision

York Region council votes for park development on greenbelt lands in Markham, Vaughan despite opposition from staff, agricultural federation
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York Region is proceeding with a controversial opening up of greenbelt lands for recreation space in Markham and Vaughan.

York’s committee of the whole approved a regional official plan amendment by a 15 to 5 vote Oct. 14, which would rezone more than 1,400 acres of protected greenbelt lands on the southern edge of the region from agricultural to rural. The change and plan amendment will allow the municipalities to develop those spaces as active urban parkland. 

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor was one of the council members to oppose it, concerned about the precedent it could set as developers push for access to the greenbelt in the future through legal proceedings.

“These decisions do get used,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s really more about the protection of the environment GTA-wide.”

The proposal has attracted opposition from groups including the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and municipal staff, the latter recommending a redesignation be explored through an ongoing municipal comprehensive review process.

But a group of landowners has pushed for a planning amendment to happen now for the greenbelt lands, also known as the “green fingers.” Such lands are protected from development under provincial policy. 

“These are areas that are surrounded by urban settlement areas,” landowner group representative Ira Kagan said in a delegation, adding he is confident the proposal is allowed under the provincial greenbelt plan. “These tablelands should never have been designated prime agricultural in the first palace, and ROPA (regional official plan amendment) 7 is a long-overdue correction to that historical wrong.”

But the non-profit York Federation of Agriculture and other groups have opposed such rezoning. Society director, treasurer and secretary Kim Empringham said the lands could still be used for agriculture. 

“Agricultural activities can and should co-exist with both ecological and adjacent urban activities,” she said. “To truly protect for agriculture into the future, the designation for greenbelt fingers should retain the agriculture area designation.”

Several Markham and Vaughan councillors backed the proposal, as did Newmarket Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh. Only Taylor, Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk, Markham Councillor Jack Heath, Markham Councillor Don Hamilton and King Mayor Steve Pellegrini voted against.

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said more parkland is needed as they build higher densities, and the proposal will be environmentally friendly.

“No one is proposing something in there that flies in the face of that environmental policy,” he said. “We’re asking for higher densities at certain locations and sometimes, because of those densities, not all of the parkland can actually be provided for in the communities that are creating that demand.”

Taylor said it would be better to wait for the municipal-comprehensive review, per staff recommendation. He told councillors he would “take all bets” on the decision coming up later for other parts of the greenbelt at the Ontario Municipal Board level. 

“The precedent is very significant. I don’t see the upside,” he said. “When we’ve got a list of expert organizations saying 'we have great concerns and we don’t support this' … I just can’t see an overwhelming reason to look aside.”

The decision will still need to be confirmed by regional council later this month before it is fully approved.