Ford readies to topple the domino that could fell the world’s largest protected Greenbelt

"The people have spoken. I'm going to listen to them, they don't want me to touch the Greenbelt, we won't touch the Greenbelt.”—Doug Ford, May 2018.

Despite his promise to Ontario residents, on November 4, Ford’s PC government announced a plan to do far worse than simply touch the Greenbelt, proposing to remove 7,400 acres from the supposedly protected area as part of a manic, developer-driven strategy to secure more land for builders to erect subdivisions in and around the outskirts of the GTA.

Even before Premier Ford was elected, it was clear his sights were set on the Greenbelt, long coveted by BILD, the powerful lobby group that represents subdivision developers, including those that have already assembled property in and around the protected ring of forests, waterways and ravines that surrounds the GTA. In 2018, before he was first elected, Ford was captured on hidden camera promising a room full of developers that he would open up large chunks of the Greenbelt, if they helped him secure the premier’s seat. After the video was leaked, igniting significant public backlash, he backtracked, vowing to leave the Greenbelt alone.

As part of the new proposal, Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH), explained in a press release that the government is proposing the removal of 15 areas of land from the edge of the Greenbelt totalling 7,400 acres. In return, the government plans to reclassify 9,400 acres of land elsewhere as part of the Greenbelt.

The PCs have billed the proposal—which is currently open for a 30-day consultation—as an expansion of the Greenbelt. However, environmental organizations describe this as nothing but a greenwashing tactic to try and sell a plan that ultimately has the potential of not only destroying significant sections of the world’s largest protected greenspace, but ultimately opening the entire collection of sensitive ecosystems for development in the near future.

The move being pushed through the legislature could be the first domino that sets off a trail of environmental devastation. Builders know that when one sensitive area is destroyed, each dependent ecosystem connected to it begins to decay, offering justification to bring in the bulldozers.

“The government says they will replace the lost land with land elsewhere – but many of the proposed additions are already protected,” states Environmental Defence on its website. “Furthermore, even if those lands weren’t already protected, the very possibility of taking any land out of the Greenbelt will undermine its effectiveness by creating an open season on farmland for land speculators and sprawl developers.”

The proposal is rendered even more incoherent by the PC government’s own housing task force which recently explained the lack of available land is not the culprit behind Ontario’s housing woes.

Earlier this year, the government’s Housing Affordability Task Force published a report urging the PCs to review its land use planning policy before expanding into more greenspace.

“A shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem,” the report reads. “Land is available, both inside the existing built-up areas and on undeveloped land outside greenbelts.”

It raises serious questions about the motives behind the PC push to destroy the province’s largest mass of protected greenspace.

The Greenbelt was created in 2005 under Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal Government as a bulwark against a residential development industry that was gobbling up forests, wetlands and farmlands at a disturbing rate. Since then, the Greenbelt has expanded to include approximately 2 million acres of critically important lands—about half of which is classified as prime farmland.

Watershed report cards for the GTA tell a disturbing tale of how urban development slowly destroys the natural world. Loss of forest cover degrades habitat leading to species loss. Industrial development leads to contamination and degraded water quality. A significant supporting structure for these suffering ecosystems are the northern headwaters, much of which fall within the Greenbelt. Much of the GTA’s watersheds receive cool, clean water from these northern reaches which serves to support those southern areas degraded by development and urban growth. Without them, it’s uncertain how long these watersheds would continue to provide the valuable services for humans and wildlife that they do today.

The Greenbelt Act—the legislation that protects these lands—was built upon two other pieces of legislation, the Niagara Escarpment Act in 1973, and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan in 2001. In 2017, a land-use planning review was done which resulted in the addition of 21 major urban river valleys and seven coastal wetlands across the Greater Golden Horseshoe to the Greenbelt—a significant acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of the watersheds and ecosystems our cities and urban environments are built on top of.

“The Greenbelt protects what sustains us and provides enormous environmental, social and economic benefits to Ontario,” stated Edward McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation in an email to The Pointer.

The announcement from the MMAH, which came just 10 days after the Ford government introduced Bill 23—an omnibus housing bill that is being described as a “trojan horse” of environmental destruction—is being described as necessary in order to get more housing built in Ontario and address the ongoing affordability crisis. According to Clark, this “bold action” of allowing development in the 15 defined areas of the Greenbelt will support local growth plans and will help to build at least 50,000 new homes.

The Greenbelt lands currently on the chopping block are all within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) in the communities of King, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Whitchurch-Stouffville, Markham, Pickering, Ajax, Clarington, Hamilton and Grimsby. The pieces of land that were chosen all border urban centres.

On November 7, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) released a statement of opposition to the proposed changes. The TRCA said it was not consulted prior to the government’s decision and while admitting housing is needed, much more should be done to ensure greenspaces are protected.

The Ford government is attempting to focus its message on the “expansion” this plan will trigger for the Greenbelt, trumpeting the 2,000 additional acres of greenspace that will be added to the Greenbelt. But when asked by The Pointer, the TRCA said there has been no indication from the government that the land added will be as ecologically valuable as the land that is being removed.

McDonnell said the Greenbelt Foundation has been studying the proposal and it is unclear why the lands chosen to add to the Greenbelt—a large chunk of land adjacent to the Paris Galt Moraine located near Erin, was chosen over other lands that have been proposed by municipalities and conservation authorities.

“For example, some of the proposed lands are in the tender fruit region in Niagara, which is the only place in the province that offers a favourable environment for these crops to grow,” McDonnell said. “In other areas, the lands contain wetlands or natural resource systems that provide critical benefits like flood mitigation to local areas and cannot be replaced with land many kilometres away.”

“You're still losing an extra 7,000 acres, making the Greenbelt bigger somewhere else doesn't magically save those 7,000 acres,” states John Vanthof, the Agriculture Critic for the NDP. “It's not good math.”

According to the MMAH, when considering the lands to be removed from the Greenbelt, the decision was made based on lands that met a number of criteria, including

In an emailed statement to The Pointer, the MMHA was adamant that “significant progress” on approved developments must be achieved by 2023 and developers must begin construction of the new homes by no later than 2025 on these Greenbelt lands.

“Our message is clear: if these conditions are not met, the government will return these properties to the Greenbelt,” said a spokesperson for the MMHA.

In addition to concerns about the ecological value of the land being “added” to the Greenbelt, the chunks of land being removed from protection will push urban development closer to the Greenbelt. The removal of any buffer between sensitive greenspace and the urban environment can significantly degrade the natural space's value in terms of habitat for wildlife, forest cover, surface water quality and flood protection. This degradation is then used as a justification for developing the land as it no longer has the environmental value it once did. In essence, by pushing urban growth closer to the Greenbelt, it is bringing the match closer to the tinder that could eventually light a fire that consumes the entire Greenbelt.

This is on top of the long list of other pressures currently facing Ontario’s Greenbelt. Not mentioned in the release earlier this month, but lingering between the lines like a ghost was Premier Ford’s pet project—Highway 413, a mega highway proposed to run from Milton to Vaughan cutting northeast through Brampton and Caledon.

The 413—currently being considered by the federal government for an extensive environmental impact assessment— will pave over 400 acres of land, cross hundreds of waterways and destroy the habitat of no less than 30 species at risk (some critically endangered). If constructed, the highway will unlock vast amounts of land for urban development, much of it has already been gobbled up by large sprawl developers as reported by the Toronto Star and National Observer.

Despite the hard lesson learned during the COVID-19 pandemic about how sensitive communities are to global food supply chains, there appears to be no consideration in the PC plan for the destruction this could cause to prime farmland. Tearing up the Greenbelt will eliminate precious farmland, decreasing food supply as population increases.

“One thing a lot of people don't realize is that southwestern Ontario, because of where it's situated in the pocket of the Great Lakes, is one of the best places and most environmentally protected places to grow food in the world,” said Vanthof, the NDP’s agriculture critic. “We already lose almost 320 acres a day to development in Ontario, and everything we do to jeopardize that further in the medium, short and long term is going to jeopardize our food security.”

“Farmland within the Greenbelt is some of the richest, most fertile in the country and it is in our best interest to balance growing communities alongside the natural systems and farmland that allow those communities to flourish,” McDonnell said in a press release.

There was a tremendous uproar from environmental activists and local farmers when, in April, the Region of Peel voted to expand its urban boundary 11,000 acres into north Brampton and south Caledon, inching closer and closer to the Greenbelt. At a time when the Region is experiencing a food security crisis— the Mississauga Food Bank recorded a 14 percent increase in visits to its nine locations across the city in 2021—protecting the lands that provide food to not only the region but all of Ontario, is of critical importance.

“We need housing in Ontario, there's not an either or, and the Ford government seems to think that it is either or,” Vanthof said. “We need food and shelter, and we need them both. They're picking one over the other.”

There have been concerns raised that, despite the open consultations being held by the Ford government on its plan, the government’s closest advisers in relation to the Greenbelt, may not have its best interests at heart.

The MMAH is advised on matters relating to the Greenbelt by the Greenbelt Council which is appointed by the minister through the Public Appointments Secretariat. The current Chair of the Greenbelt Council is former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion, long known as the “Queen of Sprawl”.

The former chair of the council, David Crombie, resigned in 2020 over Ford’s abhorrent treatment of the environment.

In her 36-year tenure as mayor, McCallion transformed Mississauga from a dispersal of hamlets and a checkerboard of farmsteads into the concrete suburb it is today. Through her love for sprawl, and close relationship with developers like Harold Shipp, McCallion eliminated next to all greenspace from the city—an effort that has led to a significant parkland deficit in Mississauga—creating spread out communities with large homes and sprawling boulevards to get around.

In 2016, when she was an advisor to the premier at the time, Kathleen Wynne, on GTHA matters, McCallion urged the government to slow down its plans to curtail sprawl (BILD, the Building Industry and Land Development lobby, aggressively pushed the same message as McCallion). She claimed the province’s plan, at the time, to increase population targets to 80 jobs and residents per hectare from 50 in areas slated for development, and to 60 per hectare from 40 in already urbanized areas, was going “too far too fast”.

In other words, she wanted barriers to sprawl lifted.

With the PCs in power, those previous density measures are a thing of the past.

Ford is now in the process of bringing back ‘80s-style planning policies that flooded the GTA in a sea of subdivisions. The Greenbelt and its surrounding land is where developers want to build them next.

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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