The government “will take strong action to protect Lake Simcoe’s water quality for future generations.”
It was just one line in the last week’s throne speech at Queen’s Park, but it may herald the toughest fight that the newly elected Liberal government will face over the next four years.
The battleground is Simcoe County, a vast area between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe, north of the Greater Toronto Area and south of Muskoka.
As predicted by environmentalists, developers have leapfrogged the Greenbelt on the northern fringes of the GTA and targeted southern Simcoe County as the next frontier for their subdivisions. Pressures are being felt in towns like Alliston, Innisfil, Clearview, and Bradford West Gwillimbury.
The government says it has anticipated this pressure and, under the Places to Grow Act, has imposed a ceiling of 667,000 (up from 420,000 today) on the population of Simcoe County and its two biggest centres, Barrie and Orillia, over the next quarter-century.
The environmentalists say even 667,000 people are too many for Lake Simcoe to sustain, given that the lake is already acutely stressed.
But according to Mark Aitken, Simcoe’s chief administrative officer, there are enough development projects in the pipeline to accommodate up to 1.2 million people in the county.
David Caplan, minister of public infrastructure and the man responsible for the Places to Grow Act, professes never to have heard the 1.2 million figure.
“I find it hard to believe,” says Caplan, his head planted in the sand.
In any event, he adds, the Places to Grow Act gives the province the power of veto over developments that exceed that figure.
That’s true. The question is: Will the government use its veto?
The developers are certainly counting on the ceiling being raised.
“The government has got some really serious issues to look at,” says Haydn Mathews, chair of the Simcoe Chapter of the Building Industry and Land Development Association. “We virtually are running out of land in the GTA.”
The government has already signed off on one of the most controversial Simcoe County developments, a 1,600-unit time-share project on Lake Simcoe’s Big Bay Point. Local ratepayers and environmentalists took the project to the Ontario Municipal Board and a decision is pending.
Geranium Corp., the developer behind the Big Bay Point project, has signed up prominent Liberals to help make its case.
One of them is Gordon Ashworth, a former senior aide to premier David Peterson back in the 1980s and a key strategist in the current Liberal government’s re-election campaign this fall.
Ashworth denies lobbying for Geranium. “I provide them with communications advice,” he says.
On the other side of the Simcoe County development war are environmentalists plus influential people with cottages and retirement homes who don’t want to see their idyllic turf becoming the next Markham or Vaughan.
Big Bay Point is just the first skirmish in this war. Next up will be the battle over the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, which is expected to be introduced in the spring.
Sources say there is a furious debate within the government – pitting Environment Minister John Gerretsen against Caplan – over whether the legislation should include direct controls on development or just deal with it indirectly by focusing on water quality.
In short, beneath that simple sentence in the throne speech lies a pile of trouble for the government.