Phinjo Gombu
 
A damning memo from Ontario’s senior planner paints a stark picture of unsustainable sprawl, congestion and skyrocketing infrastructure costs if the province proceeds with a controversial strategy to urbanize large swaths of Simcoe County north of the Greenbelt.
The warning by Victor Doyle, a key architect of the groundbreaking Greenbelt plan, focuses on the combined impact of lightning-speed growth in Barrie and proposals to create two massive employment zones along pastoral Highway 400 in Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil.
“The cumulative effect will be to open up a new linear pattern of urban sprawl along Highway 400 running virtually from the Holland Marsh to north of Barrie,” Doyle wrote in the September letter directed at Ontario’s Growth Secretariat and obtained by the Star.
What happens in Simcoe may determine whether a bold attempt to curb sprawl in the GTA ultimately succeeds or fails.
Doyle writes that the province’s so-called Simcoe Strategy, to be finalized in the next few months, follows a “pattern strikingly similar” to what happened in York Region along the Yonge St. corridor. That kind of sprawling development wasn’t supposed to happen ever again under the province’s vaunted Places to Grow plan.
“It is the litmus test,” acknowledges Melanie Hare, a planner with Urban Strategies, a leading consultancy group that has helped shape growth plans for municipalities in Halton, York and Durham regions.
Hare said what the province does in Simcoe sets the stage for how it will respond to the requests of GTA municipalities for similar urban boundary expansions – including major employment zones.
The Simcoe Strategy, for which the government invited public comment, calls for more urbanization than originally envisioned in south Simcoe and requires a legislative amendment to Places to Grow.
Doyle’s letter, though he submitted it as a private individual, is unusual in that it involves a senior planner from one ministry (municipal affairs) writing to another, the infrastructure ministry, criticizing a potentially ill-considered planning decision.
Brad Graham, assistant deputy minister with the Growth Secretariat, told the Star yesterday he had not spoken with Doyle about his memo but said it would be considered along with others put forward by stakeholders.
The provincial plan has already come under attack from York Region, which fears the proposed Highway 400 industrial zones could exacerbate highway congestion and suck jobs out of the region – just as it is spending billions of dollars on transit and other anti-sprawl infrastructure.
York accuses the province of a double standard – challenging York’s proposal for employment zones along a well-populated stretch of the 400, while supporting the Simcoe proposal, which happens to be attractive to industry because the isolated land is cheaper.
Environmental groups accuse Queen’s Park of caving in to development interests, while the Greater Toronto Countryside Mayors’ Alliance questions the wisdom of encouraging “leapfrogging” development in areas that have little or no services, such as sewer lines.
Doyle’s memorandum argues that:

The GTA has 34,000 hectares of developable land, so there’s no need to urbanize a prime agricultural area that hasn’t been serviced and isn’t connected to existing towns.
Simcoe County’s own analysis shows it has enough approved lands to accommodate 100,000 more people than needed between now and 2031, so there’s no need to pull in new land.
Research shows the focus should be on employment zones to the west side of the GTA (Halton, Peel and western York Region), an area already serviced by interconnecting highways, airports and proximity to the U.S. market.
Lake Simcoe, already threatened by phosphorous from runoff, is protected by a groundbreaking environment ministry plan to limit development. It would be prohibitively expensive to build another “big (sewage) pipe” to link Collingwood to Alliston, Bradford West Gwillimbury and Barrie.

Simcoe County has been the subject of intense land speculation, especially since the Greenbelt’s creation put areas farther south off-limits. That’s one reason why the Places to Grow plan limits Simcoe’s 2031 population target to 667,000 people – double what it is today, but far less than the 1.2 million that could have moved in, considering the number of suburban housing applications in the pipeline.
Bradford was in the news earlier this year when the province quietly negotiated a settlement with a development group, led by Geranium and Metrus, for about 500 hectares of unserviced land near Highways 400 and 88.
Months later, the province said it would consider another massive parcel along the 400 in Innisfil for a second employment zone.