Tony Battaglia’s land is little changed from four years ago, when a government edict brought his plans for it to a screeching stop.
The Toronto architect bought the 40 treed hectares near Peterborough in 1993, aiming to build a family cabin on one section, sell eight hectares for development, and save the rest for his three children.
He’d put up the cabin when, on Feb. 28, 2005, the provincial government created the Greenbelt – 720,000 hectares of land in an arc from Niagara to Port Hope that was to be protected from development and contain urban sprawl.
Since Battaglia’s property was inside the preserve’s eastern boundary, he wouldn’t be able to develop it or sell pieces to others.
At the time, interviewed by the Star’s Theresa Boyle, he was angry and philosophical. That, too, hasn’t changed: “I’m still a little bit disturbed about the whole process. I’m waiting for acceptance,” he says. The Greenbelt is “a very positive thing. I just feel cheated.”
Property owned by big developers was excluded from the protection zone or swapped for land outside the boundary, while “the little guys got stuck,” he says.
The issues in Battaglia’s story are crucial to the future of the Greenbelt as it marks its fourth anniversary today.
Those like him whose land is inside the “green” fence might continue to grumble and, as some neighbours are doing, post signs telling the government to “back off.” But the Greenbelt appears to have become a permanent, almost iconic fixture of Southern Ontario’s landscape. It has widespread public support, or at least acquiescence; both opposition parties at Queen’s Park say they wouldn’t challenge the law that created it.
It has preserved farmland, natural areas and water sources inside its boundaries and altered attitudes toward farming and development outside. Still, it isn’t secure, and attempts to strengthen it could undermine the consensus on which it’s built.
Development is eroding the Greenbelt from within. The province is doing some of the damage through construction of expressways, water and sewer pipes, and hydro transmission corridors; it’s also letting private projects proceed. In addition, advocates say, the world’s largest Greenbelt must be expanded, mainly because construction and paving is simply leapfrogging beyond its outer boundary, particularly into Simcoe County to the north and around Brantford and Waterloo to the west.
The province last summer announced it would consider enlarging the Greenbelt if municipal or regional governments apply for parcels to be added. That hasn’t happened, but a few proposals are being discussed. A group of 100 local mayors and councillors is calling for expansion. And the 80 advocacy groups that comprise the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance this week proposed major extensions in all directions.
The leapfrogging, especially in Simcoe County, is a major reason why, in its annual Greenbelt report card next month, the Alliance will award a grade that “won’t be as rosy” as the B or B+ of previous years, says Alliance spokesperson Rick Smith, who heads Environmental Defence, an Alliance member.
“We’re watching with extreme concern … the timidity with which the province has been approaching planning” in the county, and backing away from opposition to developments at odds with its own growth strategy, Smith says.
“We need a green coat, not a greenbelt,” says Burkhard Mausberg, president of Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, which supports groups working to enhance the zone.
But developers and farmers promise strong opposition to extending the boundaries.
“We’re totally supportive” of the Greenbelt, says Stephen Dupuis, president and CEO of the Building Industry and Land Development Association. “Expansion is a different story.”
Our members are “overwhelmingly” against expansion, says Wendy Omvlee, of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
It’s uncertain the government would take them on. “We won’t shy away from tough decisions, but we’re anxious to hear from our municipal partners,” says Jim Watson, the minister of municipal affairs and housing.
Waterloo Region is considering the addition of 30,000 hectares of wetland, forest and farms. Oakville has 400 hectares in mind. Much of these, and the other prime expansion candidates, are publicly owned.
Municipalities won’t likely propose properties controlled by developers. That includes most of southern Simcoe County and the strip just below the Greenbelt’s southern boundary, which is set aside for future development. Advocates say this “white belt” has twice the land required to meet projections for growth.
If within two or three years, municipalities don’t ask for some of this to be added to the Greenbelt, the province should do it, the groups say.
That won’t happen, says Watson, particularly in Simcoe where, “We did set out the criteria (that) the request (for expansion) had to come from the county.” The province will assess the situation at the Greenbelt’s scheduled 10-year review in 2015.
Advocates say many farmers have softened their opposition because the Greenbelt has helped the move toward local food, which increases their income.
A big surprise, Mausberg says, is “how the farming community has turned around; how much they’ve embraced it and tried to work within it.”
Omvlee has a gloomier take: Farmers within the Greenbelt can no longer sell their property to finance their retirement, she says. “You can only be frustrated and angry for so long. If your health means anything to you, you find a way to make it work.”
They’d be more supportive if they got annual payments for protecting natural areas or, as in the United States, compensation for losing development rights.
Supporters also say the Greenbelt has made the public more receptive to higher density development, although the speed of suburban sprawl beyond the protected zone suggests it remains a tough sell.
Mausberg says we’re missing an important option, between single-family detached homes and high-rises. “Why can’t the GTA become the Paris of North America,” with five- and six-storey walk-up buildings along the arterial streets?
Meanwhile, Battaglia awaits his own acceptance of his situation. He’s been offered a bit of money and a tax break to help him to maintain his property. “I haven’t bothered to look into it yet,” he says.
And if the Greenbelt is enlarged, he’s pretty sure what the government will do: “They’re not going to expand it where they’ve got friends, just where they think it’s safe.”