One in an occasional series on growing density in the GTA and its effect on life in the region.
In the placid lakeside town of Georgina, about an hour’s drive north of Toronto, a fierce battle is underway to excise the ghosts of a developer past.
Nearly 30 years ago, the now-defunct Bertan Investments won a hard-fought contest with residents to build a massive retirement village in part of the North Gwillimbury Forest, a wetland that stretches 15 kilometres along the southern shores of Lake Simcoe.
The firm went bankrupt before the 160-hectare project got off the ground, and in the mid-2000s, much of the property, where coyotes, deer and possum can often be spotted, was deemed provincially significant wetland, a designation intended to protect it from development.
But now, with the Highway 404 extension slated for completion in late 2014, current property owner Metrus Development is dusting off the subdivision plan. The renewed threat of cranes and bulldozers has ignited a small-town fight that prompts a big question: Should historic development rights trump modern environmental policy?
It’s a vexing conundrum that could become even more so as the pressure to accommodate growth moves to the outer fringes of the GTA, where an unknown number of development approvals sit dormant on environmentally sensitive land. Yet without clear direction from the province, these conflicts will be resolved on a case-by-case basis — for better or worse.
In this instance, York Region’s new official plan states that “development and site alternation is prohibited within evaluated wetlands.” The prohibition, it says, is “unequivocal” and “mandatory,” which, according to some local residents, should be enough to save the forest.
“We shouldn’t be debating this issue,” said Jack Gibbons, who has a cottage in the area and chairs the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance (NGFA). “The laws of Ontario say the town is legally obliged to protect these wetlands, and they should be doing it.”
But the property is not protected under provincial legislation such as the Greenbelt Plan, an award-winning policy aimed at managing growth and preserving green space.
And with a development approval, zoning and a registered subdivision plan in place, the town and region insist that the right to build reigns supreme.
“I’d love it to be a forest forever, but I’m a realist,” said Georgina Mayor Rob Grossi. “I don’t have the ability as a mayor or a local council to reverse rights that have been granted by some other level of government.”
This deference, however, does not sit well with Toronto environmental lawyer David Donnelly, who describes the debate in Georgina as “an excellent example of what’s wrong with urban planning in Southern Ontario.”
“Whether it’s the influence of developers in municipal politics or a lack of provincial will to protect our vanishing provincially significant wetlands, a very poor form of development . . . is winning out over environmental protection,” he said.
Opposition among local residents, meanwhile, is gaining traction. Since January, Erin Kemp, whose house backs onto the property, has been going to door-to-door, collecting hundreds of signatures from neighbours concerned about the effects of such a project on the lake, and frustrated by the perceived inaction of council.
“If they knock it out, we’re just becoming like Newmarket or Toronto,” Kemp said of the forest. “People are outraged.”
Across the GTA, development and environmental protection policies are governed by complex layers of legislation, most of which is determined by the province and regions. However, municipalities are largely left to figure out how these rules translate to specific developments.
“At the end of the day, zoning is a local responsibility,” said Yanni Dagonas, communications adviser for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
But as the dispute in Georgina shows, this hands-off approach can result in lawyers, planners and consultants sparring over their interpretations of the wording in official plans and years-old letters from provincial ministries.
Under the provincial planning act, as the lowest tier of government, Georgina is required to conform to the policies outlined by the region, which, since the new plan was enacted last summer, includes strict provisions for preserving wetlands.
Yet while those opposed to the project believe that York Region’s plan should guide the town to halt the development, all the other concerned parties — including York — disagree with that assessment.
“All the policies in an official plan need to be read together,” said Valerie Shuttleworth, director of long range planning for York. “Our more general policies say you can’t develop in a provincially significant wetland, but when you dig farther . . . there are transition policies that recognize existing approvals over new designations.”
This is certainly the view Fraser Nelson, general manager for Metrus, takes. As he sees it, there is no confusion about the company’s right to develop on the property it purchased in 1999.
“We have a registered plan of subdivision, period. There’s no ambiguity about that whatsoever,” Nelson said. “If someone thinks it’s not clear, it’s only in their mind.”
But according to Toronto lawyer Leo Longo, who represents the NGFA, the Metrus development, dubbed Maple Lake Estates, was not included in a list of projects exempt from York’s new wetland policies in the official plan.
Development rights are never set in stone, said Longo, a senior partner at Aird and Berlis.
“Where in law can the government ever say, ‘You know what, you’re preserved no matter what laws change’?” he said. “I’m not aware of the government ever giving anyone a guarantee.”
A big reason the debate over historic development approvals is so heated is that it concerns the ability of government to interfere with an individual’s — or, in this case, a major company’s — basic property rights.
At a glance, not much distinguishes the wooded property on the east side of Georgina from the rest of the forest, besides “No Trespassing” signs, a water tower and a few cleared-out paths amid the bulrushes and cedar trees.
But when Metrus bought the land, it did so with the understanding that it was zoned for an approved development. Inked in 1992, the registered subdivision plan is for an “adult lifestyle community” that includes 1,073 self-contained, pre-built units, as well as a golf course, parks, walkways and other recreational complexes.
In addition to property taxes, the firm has put about $1 million into installing water and sanitary systems, according to Nelson.
“We have a lot invested in this property,” he said.
However, as residents see it, a lot has changed since 1987, when the Ontario Municipal Board ruled in favour of the development.
“We’re far more in tune with our environment today,” said Sandra Villiers, who has lived next to the forest since 1968. “You have to take today’s needs and responsibilities into account.”
At a council meeting late last month, at the behest of the NGFA, the town debated enacting a bylaw to temporarily halt development on the Maple Lake Estates property and seven other parcels of privately owned land in the forest.
Council voted to defer the matter to give the parties an opportunity to sit down and attempt to find a compromise.
Before Metrus can break ground, the company needs a building permit from the town as well as a permit from the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, which must weigh the potential impact on the lake.
Nelson said Metrus intends to make those applications this summer. If either permit is granted, Longo said his client will appeal.
With 70 per cent of the wetland coverage in southern Ontario already gone, it’s a process that environmental groups will be watching closely.
“This is an important test case,” said Claire Malcolmson, president of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition. “I would hope we’d get some clarity (on) how to interpret what seems to be conflicting policies.”