On January 19 the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure enacted Amendment #1 to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, also known as the Simcoe Sub-area Amendment. The Amendment is hailed as a win for developers and the County, and signals that the province has tired of trying to curb Simcoe's taste for rapid, uncoordinated growth of low-density bedroom communities.
Lying just north of Southern Ontario's Greenbelt, Simcoe County faces massive growth pressures fuelled by developers' land speculation, and high housing and development prices in Toronto. Implementing the Growth Plan in Simcoe County, Barrie, and Orillia has been painful for all involved. Simcoe County's 2008 Official Plan was so far from the province's direction that the province stepped in, first with a "vision" for Simcoe in 2009, and finally, January's first amendment to the Growth Plan.
After receiving numerous complaints from all sectors about the draft amendment number one, the province appointed Provincial Development Facilitator Paula Dill to conduct a further consultation. The consultations covered 59 meetings with stakeholders and included 176 written submissions. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli said, "All we heard was protect the lake, protect the natural environment, and we paid special attention to that."
However, it is our opinion that it is the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan, not the growth plan or this amendment, which protects the environment. For example, the province seems to be handing off responsibility for larger scale environmental planning in new strategic settlement employment areas by allowing the municipality to identify the natural areas for protection. This strategy does not guarantee a coordinated, regional approach to planning and protecting green space. On a positive note, the amendment "encourages" but does not require affected municipalities "to achieve greater efficiency and conservation in energy, water and wastewater management through building and community design." A little nod to a hopefully greener future.
Amendment one sticks to growth planning and clarifies important departures from the basic tenets of the growth plan. A significant change (and a win for developers) is that the county can determine how to distribute an additional 20,000 people, in approved settlement areas, above the 667,000 population target. A worrying implication is that a number of sprawling projects appear to be grandfathered without explanation, like the Midhurst Secondary Plan for 30,000 people north of Barrie in Springwater Township, which, under prior rules should have been stopped because its proposed population exceeded the township's population allocation from the growth plan.
Environmentalists have been alarmed for several years by two massive new development proposals that would pave prime agricultural land and Lake Simcoe watershed areas along Highway #400. We contend that this is unnecessary while tens of thousands of acres of lands already approved for employment purposes can be found elsewhere in Southern Ontario. Why, we have asked, build up the housing stock where there are no jobs? Why not concentrate housing in already built-up areas, closer to functioning employment areas, transit, and services? This was what the growth plan was supposed to do.
In the Simcoe sub-area, the province of Ontario has paved the way for new employment lands on agricultural land, and has effectively increased the population allocation. Panelists and local activists at AWARE Simcoe's January 21 anti-sprawl meeting agreed now that the Province has made the rules clear for Simcoe County, it is now time to focus on Councilors' and Mayors' decisions.
We must all insist that development decisions are made based on clear criteria such as reducing impacts on water and sensitive green spaces, the proximity of real, existing jobs, and the feasibility of public transit servicing. Part of the solution is for development to be as green as possible. People concerned about the Lake should oppose any new development in the Lake Simcoe watershed that does not reduce the traditional urban sprawl ecological footprint for water and energy consumption by at least 50 per cent. Were these criteria followed, much less development would leapfrog our beloved Greenbelt.
Co-authored by Claire Malcolmson and David Donnelly