Phinjo Gombu
URBAN AFFAIRS REPORTER
Highway 400, notorious for its bumper-to-bumper traffic, could get a lot more crowded.
The province yesterday announced it would allow Barrie to annex thousands of hectares of agricultural land from Innisfil for future growth. It also launched a study for a massive employment zone on either side of Highway 400 in the Town of Innisfil.
The announcement builds upon a controversial settlement made a few months ago between the government and major developers Metrus and Geranium that allows for another employment zone to be built along Highway 400 at Highway 88 in Bradford West Gwillimbury.
If approved, critics say, these moves would kill efforts to contain growth and would bring suburban sprawl to the area stretching from Bradford West Gwillimbury to Barrie, an area that is now mostly thousands of hectares of farmland, located north of the protected greenbelt that caps the outer edges of the GTA. That would put massive pressure on Highway 400, the main north-south route in the region.
Critics were quick to point out that the study challenges the province’s lauded Places to Grow Act that aims to curb suburban sprawl across Southern Ontario by, for example, encouraging more people to live in less space and within easy access to public transit and work.
Until late last year, senior provincial officials publicly questioned the need for the expansion under the provincial plan, citing an oversupply of land already approved for development.
But the pressures to build are enormous.
Places to Grow threatens to leave many developers with land that is outside growth plans – and essentially worthless – while local politicians in South Simcoe are eager to get more jobs.
Yesterday’s announcement, made jointly by the ministry of municipal affairs and the infrastructure ministry, ignored provincial officials’ concerns.
Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, which has been leading the battle to curb leapfrogging sprawl-style development growth north of the Green Belt, said the government caved in to pressure from developers and local politicians.
He said the decision to potentially pave thousands of hectares of fertile, agricultural land will make it difficult to contain development within the proposed pockets of land in Bradford and Innisfil.
“Somebody driving north on Highway 400, if this plan comes into effect, is going to see a sea of urban sprawl from the Holland Marsh right through to Orillia,” said Smith.
But officials at the infrastructure ministry said that creating focused employment zones off Highway 400 was the right thing to do, despite the fact there is an oversupply of employment lands within Simcoe County’s urban centres.
 
“Yes, if you look at the whole area, there is more than enough land to accommodate the population to 2031,” said assistant deputy minister Brad Graham. “The problem is that it’s not approved in the right place.”
“We are setting aside lands for very significant provincial infrastructure along the 400 series highway that are very important for our trade with the U.S.,” said Graham.
Officials said strict criteria would ensure the development of the lands would be phased in, and they would be used for industrial and manufacturing employment – not big box-style retail development.
What the province did not do was “undesignate” the oversupply of land already approved for development, saying it would be built over a longer period of time.
Any future growth also has to conform to the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, which came into effect this week. Its goal is to drastically reduce the amount of phosphorous that is slowly strangling Lake Simcoe, much of it in the form of runoff from development and sewage effluent.
To control runaway growth, the province allocated Simcoe County a cap of about 667,000 people till 2031 – still a 52 per cent increase from today. This includes the cities of Barrie and Orillia.
The fear now is that future reviews of the growth plan will slowly erode efforts to contain growth.
Officials in York Region maintain that much of South Simcoe should have been included as part of the Green Belt, or at least face stricter environmental standards before development approvals are given.
And one senior York official expressed concern last year about the lack of plans for public transportation linking Simcoe to York Region.
York officials have pointed out that development is being planned there without a comprehensive master plan for potentially expensive water and waste water servicing infrastructure; something yesterday’s announcement also said should be addressed.