Toronto – Transparency and consistency in provincial policy hit a new low with the recent, extraordinary Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZO) in Bradford, Ontario.  Buried in the secretly negotiated Minutes of Settlement between the town of Bradford West Gwillimbury, Simcoe County, the Bond Head Development Corporation, and others, is a signal to developers that developing the 400 – 404 (known as the Bradford By-Pass) highways link may be “on”, a project the McGuinty government promised never to develop.
A number of Lake Simcoe area environmental groups are calling on Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to obey Places to Grow (a provincial law) and restore order to Simcoe County’s development plans. The groups say that a recent land-use designation give-away of 730 hectares (1825 acres) of prime farmland in Bradford West Gwillimbury, and the enormous settlement area expansion in the Lake Simcoe watershed in Innisfil, both violate the province’s Places to Grow Act. Passed in 2006, the Places to Grow Act lays out how development is to be planned in southern Ontario – an allegedly transparent and consistent process that appears to have been completely violated in the recent Bradford case.
“Taken together, these extraordinary approvals paint a picture of Simcoe County as the Wild West where developer-initiated projects, not efficient use of servicing and resources, direct municipal plans. The province needs to remember where it was going, and take the reins,” said Robert Matthews, Chair of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition.
In Bradford, three extraordinary Minister’s Zoning Orders were issued to a development consortium including Metrus and Geranium Corporation (the developer of the proposed Big Bay Point mega-marina in Innisfil). The Zoning Orders effectively permit new urban and industrial growth outside an approved and serviced urban area. The Zoning Orders and Minutes of Settlement bind the Minister of Municipal Affairs to “agree to support” the developers at any future appeals of the Zoning Orders or Official Plan Amendment hearings.
“These MZO’s effectively cut the province’s award-winning Places to Grow legislation to ribbons,” said David Donnelly, counsel to Environmental Defence.
The Toronto Star reported on March 14, 2009, that the province negotiated the “settlement” with Toromont Industries, and “their municipal supporters” to allow Toromont to re-locate its manufacturing plant, threatened by the planned University/Spadina subway expansion, to the Hwy 400 corridor.  It was first reported the company would move its operations and 2,500 jobs to Manitoba if it couldn’t relocate in Ontario, but a letter to the editor by Toromont Vice-President David Wetherald, clarifies that Toromont never planned to leave Ontario and will only re-locate 500 jobs, few if any in “manufacturing”.
There are thousands of acres of serviced, zoned industrial land throughout the Greater Toronto Area that were overlooked by the province when choosing to re-locate Toromont to Bradford’s agricultural land at the Hwy. 400 / 88 area.
Campaign Lake Simcoe, a partnership of Environmental Defence, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, and Ontario Nature, is concerned that the province would support new jobs in an area not served by public transit, forcing even more commuters onto an already congested #400 Highway.
“Planning principles need to be recession proof. Every business would love a land-use special favour or two from the province in these tough economic times,” said Dr. Rick Smith, Executive Director, Environmental Defence. “Paving Prime Agricultural land and locating new industry in an area un-serviced by public transit is a terrible decision in any economy; it’s a recipe for more traffic congestion, smog and urban sprawl.  But cutting this deal with a developer behind closed doors without due process makes it even worse.”
“We think it is 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,” said Robert Keffer, President of the Bond Head Bradford West Gwillimbury Residents for Responsible Development and a seventh generation dairy farmer.  “We participated in the Town’s Official Planning process throughout, and then the province and developer go behind closed doors to do this deal and we were completely shut out.  Had we been there, we would have reminded Premier McGuinty that the lands taken out of Places to Grow protection are 84% Prime Agricultural Lands, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food.”
In a separate example of Simcoe municipalities gone wild, in April, Innisfil Council approved the conversion of more than 336 hectares of rural and agricultural land to residential development through its Official Plan Amendment No.1 (OPA 1). It is an area much larger than the 270 hectares its planning consultant said was needed to accommodate an additional 10,000 people, bringing the town’s projected population in 2031 to 65,000. This decision will mean that subdivisions sprawl east of the 20th sideroad from Innisfil’s 4th to the 9th line, continuously.
Innisfil Council’s decision is contrary to both Places to Grow and the province’s apparent concern about protecting Lake Simcoe and its watershed, and highlights the need for the draft Lake Simcoe Protection Plan to address population growth issues, which it currently does not.
“The coordination of provincial initiatives is essential if the Lake Simcoe Protection Act is going to be worth its name: ‘An Act to protect and restore the ecological health of the Lake Simcoe watershed.’ We recommend that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing direct Simcoe County to direct development away from the Lake Simcoe watershed in its Official Plan,” said Claire Malcolmson, Campaign Lake Simcoe Coordinator for Environmental Defence.
“Places to Grow was the first recipient from outside the United States of the American Planning Association’s (APA) Daniel Burnham Award, the most prestigious planning award in the United States,” said David Donnelly. “I don’t see how the government can claim Places to Grow is worthy of the award if it’s just another policy that can be undermined in secret negotiations with developers – that’s not good planning.”
Campaign Lake Simcoe expects the provincial government to save Simcoe’s farmland, not pave it.  The credibility of Ontario keeping the Daniel Burnham Award turns on this point.
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For more information, or to arrange interviews, please contact:
Jennifer Foulds, Environmental Defence, (416) 323-9521 ext. 232; (647) 280-9521(cell)
Robert Keffer, Bond Head Bradford West Gwillimbury Residents for Responsible Development, (905)939-7368