Phinjo Gombu
Without waiting for a Simcoe County growth plan to be completed, the province is appearing before the Ontario Municipal Board today to finalize a secret deal with developers and municipal officials for a massive employment zone along Highway 400 in Bradford West Gwillimbury. It comes just four days after the province announced its strategy for growth in the region that includes a study of a second major employment zone on another stretch of the highway, further north in Innisfil.
It puts the province in the curious position of pushing for the approval of the Bradford deal with Metrus, Geranium and other landholders, done secretly without any studies or consultation, while apparently seeking public input for the other.
Critics of the deal, including Environmental Defence, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Bond Head Bradford West Gwillimbury Residents for Responsible Development, Campaign Lake Simcoe and the NDP, say the process should be adjourned until a complete vision for regional growth emerges.
“It is your obligation to demonstrate to the public, farmers, municipalities and other developers that we all have a meaningful say in planning growth in Simcoe,” wrote Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, in a letter to deputy premier and infrastructure minister George Smitherman.
Smith and others say the Bradford settlement is a classic example of piecemeal, backroom planning that bows to land speculators. They fear it marks the beginning of unchecked sprawl from the Holland Marsh to Barrie.
Combined with the expansion of Barrie’s urban boundary, the two employment zones will put pressure on a highway already clogged with commuter and cottage country traffic.
Before the settlement earlier this year, the province was ready to challenge the two zones at the OMB, saying they went against the province’s plan to curb urban sprawl. They said there already exists thousands of hectares of appropriately zoned and serviced land in nearby places such as Bradford’s town limits, Alliston and within the Greater Toronto Area. Bringing in new zoning, much of it on prime agricultural land, would lead to a huge oversupply, officials said.
Senior provincial officials now say they need those specific lands along the highway for large industrial and manufacturing employment.
Michael Melling, lawyer for developers Metrus and Geranium, dismissed calls for an adjournment calling it a “predictable ploy” by those with no real arguments.
He said the Bradford employment zone was consistent with the strategy released by the province last week and an important part of southern Ontario’s employment infrastructure.
“The province, county and town are to be commended for their foresight,” he said.
Spokespersons for municipal affairs minister Jim Watson and Smitherman said neither minister would speculate yesterday on what might happen at today’s hearing. They insist it’s up to the board, although the deal leaves the province in the driver’s seat on any question of an adjournment.
Geoff McNight, Bradford West Gwillimbury’s director of planning, said the deal states that if the OMB disagrees with the settlement, Watson will issue three extraordinary zoning orders to make it happen.
A key component of Ontario’s growth strategy requires municipalities to justify bringing on new land for development, to avoid ad hoc sprawl. As part of its strategy in Simcoe, the province announced Barrie would not be the sole major urban growth centre, as originally envisaged, adding emerging centres such as Alliston, Collingwood and Bradford West Gwillimbury.
The province’s plan to curb sprawl in Simcoe caps the region’s population at 667,000 till 2031, a 52 per cent increase from today. Just a few years ago, it was faced with development applications that would have resulted in a population of about 1.2 million.
Bradford and Alliston, in particular, face tremendous pressure for major residential developments and there is also pressure to build the east-west Bradford Bypass, a 400 series highway that would link Highway 400 to Highway 404.