A new poll commissioned by the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance found 83 per cent of Markham residents are in favour of a foodbelt proposal put forward by two town councillors.
The poll, designed and conducted by the public opinion and market research firm Pollara, surveyed 501 adult residents in Markham between Jan. 25 and 27.
The six-minute telephone survey gave a brief synopsis of the foodbelt proposal and asked 15 questions, such as, “In your opinion, what is the single most important issue facing Markham today?” “How important do you feel it is to protect local farmland and greenspace?” and “Do you feel that real estate developers should have more, less or about the same amount of influence over your municipal politicians?”
The poll found respondents were very or somewhat concerned about the availability of locally grown food (71 per cent), controlling urban sprawl (73 per cent) and providing a good balance between protecting local agriculture and building new homes (81 per cent).
As well, 41 per cent of the respondents felt real estate developers have a great deal of influence over local municipal politicians and 67 per cent said they would be more likely to vote for a councillor if he or she supported the creation of a foodbelt in Markham.
While 36 per cent reported they were familiar with the proposal, only nine per cent said they were very familiar with it.
“A 15-question poll is not a small sample and the margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 per cent,” said Craig Worden, senior vice-president of public affairs at Pollara. “In terms of (public relations) polling, it’s impressive.”
However, the survey made no reference to local farmers, the majority of whom told Markham council at a public meeting last month they were against the foodbelt proposal because it would devalue agricultural lands.
Still, for the two councillors who pushed forward the proposal last December, the poll is overwhelmingly encouraging.
“It’s a tidal wave of public support for this. Really, the numbers speak for themselves. I think the debate is over,” Councillor Erin Shapero said.
“Developer influence in town has been so strong. People are sick and tired of sprawl and congestion – they want the insanity to stop.”
Dr. Rick Smith is the executive director of Environmental Defence, co-ordinator of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance.
He said while they expected the poll to be somewhat favourable, “the strength of the results really surprised us.”
“This is the silent majority. Ironically, if you support the foodbelt proposal, you may be less inclined to come out to public meetings than if you are opposed to it.”
Philip Ling has sat in many of these types of meetings. As the chairperson of the Markham Environmental Advisory Committee, he said the town is facing a “do-or-die” situation.
“The debate has been going on for a long time and I’m not surprised to see the numbers,” he said.
The foodbelt proposal would have implications for farmers who own land in the buffer zone, “but once it’s paved over, someone has made money. Whoever that is, for the right reasons or wrong reasons, at the end of the day, the land is gone forever.”
Mr. Ling likened developers who bought land “on speculation” to buying Nortel stocks.
“You win some and you lose some,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Building Industry&Land Development Association (BILD) urged Markham to follow the advice of its professional staff by adopting a balanced approach to growth.
“There have been a whole lot of expectations raised by the last-minute proposal to completely restrict the outward growth of Markham, a proposal which is well-intentioned but inconsistent with the reality of growth in the GTA, York Region and Markham itself,” BILD president and CEO Stephen Dupuis said in a media release.
While the foodbelt proposal has proven popular with most environmental groups – the Rouge Park Alliance passed a resolution to support it last Friday – it is less so among some local elected officials and ratepayer groups.
For Deputy Mayor Jack Heath, a Rouge Park Alliance member who voted not to support the proposal, the issue comes under the provincial government’s domain.
“I support all of the concerns of agriculture, but I believe the issue is beyond the purview of the Town of Markham or the Region of York,” he said.
Earlier this week, Mr. Heath and Regional Councillor Joe Virgilio introduced a motion to ask the region and the province to reduce Markham’s population target by 40,000 and not include any expansion of the urban boundary beyond what is in the current official plan.
The last-minute move, in Councillor John Webster’s opinion, “muddies the water”.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Webster attended an information meeting organized by the Angus Glen Ratepayers Association to learn more about Markham’s growth management strategy with Valerie Shuttleworth, the town’s director of planning and urban design.
The meeting was attended by various ratepayers representatives, one developer, and councillors Dan Horchik, Don Hamilton, and Regional Councillor Gordon Landon.
Mr. Webster said he had heard about the meeting and wanted to attend.
“The town and the region have been working together on this for two to three years,” he said.
“Then suddenly, at Christmas, right out of the left field, two councillors decided to call something foodbelt and since then, there has been a lot of rhetoric. There has been a lot of misinformation that’s gone out.”
When informed about the foodbelt poll, Mr. Webster said many of his constituents called him to complain about it.
“It was sort of like saying: ‘Do you believe food is good?'” he said. “They didn’t phone me.”
Patrick O’Hanlon was the only developer at the Wednesday meeting. The Angus Glen resident and landowner said his neighbourhood ratepayers association wanted to get the facts about the town’s growth strategy from someone without a vested interest.
Mr. O’Hanlon said part of the concern from residents there is about the “sensationalized” foodbelt proposal, which they felt was not recommended or vetted through the public.
“To bring up the foodbelt as this time and juncture is a little strange, after all the public and interest groups had time to actually attend meetings and deliver opinions. In an election year, this is very strange,” he said.
“The real question is what has the Town of Markham recommended and what have all the studies and public consultations brought them to, and that’s balanced growth management process with 60 per cent (intensification). That is what the experts have come to propose.”
Ron Meier agrees. He is on the Angus Glen Ratepayers Association’s board of directors for planning and development.
Asked who was invited to attend the meeting, he said they invited all ratepayers group in town, as well as their ward councillor, Mr. Horchik.
“How the other councillors got there I have no idea,” Mr. Meier said.
But Councillor Valerie Burke questioned the meeting’s inclusiveness and transparency.