Toronto—In a stunning turn of events, the McGuinty government released a potentially disastrous draft strategy for Simcoe County growth today that reverses positive aspects of its own planning scheme for southern Ontario, the Places to Grow Act.
In one fell swoop, the province has opened up thousands of hectares of land for future development. In a paper released today, “Simcoe Area: A Strategic Vision for Growth”, the province recommends large scale reallocation of population and jobs from northern Simcoe municipalities to Barrie, Collingwood, Bradford West Gwillimbury, Orillia and Alliston. The changes also allow Barrie’s annexation of 2,293 hectares (5,666 acres) of Innisfil. Under the strategy, two new employment zones would be created along the already congested Highway 400 corridor. The net effect of the strategy’s direction would be a sea of poorly planned urban sprawl from the northern edge of the Greenbelt northwards all the way to Barrie and beyond.
Environmental groups who have worked with the Ministry of the Environment on the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, which was finalized on Tuesday, are generally pleased with the Lake Simcoe Plan (except for the huge loophole exempting the Big Bay Point mega-marina), but are extremely concerned that the urban area expansions outlined in the Simcoe Area Strategy will undermine the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan.
“Concentrating population growth in the area’s largest centres makes good planning sense, particularly in Barrie, but opening up new areas for residential development, and paving over prime agricultural lands to create new employment nodes in un-serviced areas is definitely a step backwards,” said Claire Malcolmson, Coordinator of Campaign Lake Simcoe for Environmental Defence.
Much of the controversy surrounding the Simcoe Area Strategy stems from the apparent disregard the province is showing for its own Growth Plan, Places to Grow. Places to Grow, the award-winning planning legislation, requires new development to “optimize the use of existing and new infrastructure to support growth in a compact, efficient form” and aims to prevent precious resources from being wasted on unnecessary new infrastructure.
“Everybody knows Simcoe County has more than enough land in existing settlement areas to accommodate future growth, so why the sweetheart deal for developers and false claims of needing to keep jobs in Ontario?” asked David Donnelly, counsel to Environmental Defence. “I’m very concerned that this deal is going to cost the taxpayer dearly in new infrastructure costs and sends a message to other municipalities that Places to Grow is a joke at a time when we can least afford it.”
Barrie is the only municipality that needs more land to expand its population and employment areas, but it is designated as a new Growth Area under Places to Grow. The 2006 joint county/provincial Inter-Governmental Action Plan (“IGAP”) clearly showed the County had 3,500 acres of existing, vacant approved employment and residential land. Only about one-third of this land was needed for future growth to 2031, and yet the government’s proposed strategy unveiled today would designate much in excess of that.
“The province’s capitulation to Simcoe County land speculators undermines the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan,” said Dr. Rick Smith, Executive Director, Environmental Defence. “Every municipality, every homebuilder, every citizen of Ontario who thought the province meant what it said with Places to Grow and conducted themselves accordingly should be outraged today. It’s now very clear there is one rule for speculators in southern Simcoe County and another for everybody else. Had we known the Lake Simcoe Protection Act was a Trojan Horse for Wild West sprawl in Simcoe County, we would have taken a second look at our support for it long ago.”
“We always knew that Places to Grow and the Lake Simcoe Protection Act were at odds because saving Lake Simcoe requires saving, not paving massive areas of the watershed,” said Claire Malcolmson. “Putting more jobs and housing in Barrie at least follows Places to Grow, and supports compact development. We hope that the new development proposed in this announcement will not increase the phosphorus loads from sewage treatment plants in the Lake Simcoe watershed. The Lake Simcoe Protection Act is supposed to cap those sources of pollution, but now I’m not sure that will be possible. The province can still do the right thing and save agricultural land in Simcoe.” The province has given the public until September 2, 2009 to comment on proposed amendments to the Simcoe Growth Plan.
Environmental groups are further outraged by three last minute and secret Minister’s Zoning Orders permitting development in Bradford West Gwillimbury. The zoning orders were released just several weeks before the start of a controversial Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing for Bradford West Gwillimbury’s Official Plan Amendment (OPA) 15, scheduled to begin on June 8, 2009. Extraordinarily, this hearing is about to occur even though neither the Simcoe County Official Plan nor province’s Growth Plan has been approved.
“This is a truly bizarre turn of events. For three years we worked on the Lake Simcoe Protection Act after being promised that the Act would force municipalities and developers to respect the Places to Grow Act only to find that the government itself has no respect for its own legislation, much less for its supporters, the people who have worked tirelessly to make the legislation meaningful,” said Robert Eisenberg, Co-Chair of Campaign Lake Simcoe.
“The government has to re-think its direction. It is inconceivable that it would undermine its own significant strides to ensure environmental protection and sustainability for Lake Simcoe and its watershed,” said Caroline Schultz, Executive Director, Ontario Nature. “It’s still not too late to save Lake Simcoe but time is running out.”
About Campaign Lake Simcoe (www.campaignlakesimcoe.ca): About Campaign Lake Simcoe: (www.CampaignLakeSimcoe.ca) Campaign Lake Simcoe is a partnership of Environmental Defence, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Ontario Nature and welcomes participation from all citizen groups who care about Lake Simcoe.
For more information, or to arrange interviews, please contact:
Jennifer Foulds, Environmental Defence, (416) 323-9521 ext. 232; (647) 280-9521(cell)