The province has caved in to developers – and short-term worries about jobs – and disregarded its long-term war on sprawl, by allowing prime farmland just north of the Greenbelt to be turned over to industry, environmentalists and residents say.
The Municipal Affairs ministry’s intention to change the zoning of more than 500 hectares near Highways 400 and 88, between Bond Head and the urban area of Bradford West Gwillimbury, will allow Toromont Industries to transfer its Vaughan operations to a 40-hectare site there.
The Star first reported in March that Toromont, an assembler and distributor of large industrial equipment, had threatened to move to Manitoba – putting hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs at risk – if it wasn’t permitted to build on that site.
The province’s settlement document shows how the cost of allocating 40 hectares to Toromont and servicing that area with water and sewer pipes could only be justified with more development.
The move is the thin edge of the wedge, says David Donnelly, a lawyer for Environmental Defence.
The decision violates the province’s Places to Grow plan, invites further sprawl in an area that has no public transit and will promote more highway congestion, Donnelly said yesterday.
Places to Grow, a sweeping, long-range attempt to manage growth across southern Ontario, prescribes intensified development in particular areas to limit sprawl. The much-heralded plan has earned the prestigious Daniel Burnham planning award from the American Planning Association.
The provincial rezoning orders “are inexplicable and effectively cut the province’s award-winning Places to Grow legislation to ribbons,” said Donnelly. He described the plan as a prime example of tic-tac-toe development that, as feared, has begun to “leapfrog” over the protected Greenbelt area.
Jeffrey Davies, a lawyer for the developers, Geranium and Metrus Developments, called that characterization unfortunate.
“We are at a time in our economy where there is a desperate need for jobs, and we have no other similarly large tracts of land for large-scale industries available in southern Ontario,” Davies said. “It is anything but caving in. To the contrary, this is good, sound, responsible planning.”
Local dairy farmer Robert Keffler, representing the group Bond Head Bradford West Gwillimbury Residents for Responsible Development, said the urbanization being welcomed by local politicians as a “lifeline to the future” threatens nearby agricultural land.
“We are in a good farming area,” said Keffler. “We think it’s decidedly not good environmental or agricultural planning to build a new industrial node beside a flood plain that drains into the Holland Marsh, Ontario’s salad bowl.”
Documents show that secret negotiations among the province, developers and local municipalities were prompted by Toromont’s decision to move its head office, training, and manufacturing and distribution operations to the area.
The company is being forced out of the path of Toronto’s subway as it is expanded. It has denied that any more than 500 jobs were ever in play, or that it threatened to move out of the province.
Senior officials in the ministries of municipal affairs and infrastructure had questioned enthusiasm for new employment nodes on Highway 400, saying there was an “oversupply” of designated employment lands in south Simcoe County. They had expected to challenge the project at the Ontario Municipal Board, but a high-level decision to enter into negotiations put an abrupt end to that plan.
The province has also agreed to allow a tenfold expansion of the nearby hamlet of Bond Head – increasing its population to 4,500 from 500 – on about 210 hectares. It would be serviced on the same utility lines as the employment zone.
The agreement needs OMB approval, and future development is subject to an environmental assessment process, as well as the Lake Simcoe Protection Act.
There’s further pressure for sprawl north along Highway 400, with the Town of Innisfil pushing for an employment zone on its own strip of agricultural land. The province is already challenging parts of that plan before the Ontario Municipal Board – as it had planned to do in the Bradford West Gwillimbury area before deciding to negotiate over the Toromont deal.
Existing land zoned for employment within the Bradford West Gwillimbury urban limits will now be “frozen” and come into play only if a bypass connecting Highway 400 and Highway 404 is built. The province’s current growth plan does not contemplate such a bypass.
Ontario is trying to cap the number of homes built in south Simcoe over the next 25 years. The limit is close to half what developers want.