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York Region Council 21 May 2015: the big debate on planning for growth and protecting the greenbelt

To York Regional Council to see the big debate (21 May 2015). It’s the only way. There is no video feed. Nothing on YouTube. The alternative is to sit next to a radio, and listen. They used to do this in the 1930s.

The Region is considering its response to three very significant Provincial policy reviews: the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Greenbelt Plan and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan.

The Region’s Chief Planner, the ubiquitous Valerie Shuttleworth, outlines her recommendations with the usual colourful Powerpoint presentation replete with graphs and bullet points.

As they are absorbing this, Councillors are leafing through a 119 page report, printed on canary yellow paper to grab their attention, asking them to “endorse the staff recommendations contained in this report as the Region’s formal response…”

Whoa! Not so fast.

Thank goodness for Markham’s Jack Heath. He is not the type to rubber stamp anything. He wants an assessment of how the three plans are working in practice. He warns of “unintended consequences” arising from the existing plans and cites, as an example, the movement of places of worship into industrial areas. He says soaring land prices in residential areas have forced churches, cemeteries and sports facilities to look elsewhere for sites they can afford.

The Planners are getting ahead of themselves

Markham’s Frank Scarpetti, the highest paid Mayor in Ontario and, possibly, Canada, is also unhappy. You can see it in his face. He clearly feels councillors are being bounced into endorsing some very specific recommendations. He wants the submission to re-affirm positions previously adopted by the Region. He wants the Region to take a position next week at the special council on May 28.

Newmarket’s John Taylor wants his colleagues to focus on one or two big issues and not get lost in the undergrowth. He talks about the greenbelt in South Simcoe and making employment lands available along the 400 series of highways.

The planners want to grow the Greenbelt northwards into south Simcoe County as a way of preventing “leap-frog” development into agricultural areas.

The irrepressibly jolly Chair, the rotund Wayne Emmerson, says the 404 corridor is a huge opportunity for local municipalities and they should make the point strongly in their own municipality’s response. (Regional councillors were told, provisionally, that Newmarket would consider a staff report on May 25 and again at Council on June 1.)

Threats to the Greenbelt

Taylor’s ally, Richmond Hill’s Brenda Hogg worries about threats to the integrity of the Greenbelt and points to a staff recommendation which would permit “compatible community recreational uses”. Hmmm. She gets Valerie Shuttleworth to agree with her that the original purpose of the Greenbelt is to protect water sources and agriculture. Now a senior staff member responds saying the word “recreational” should be deleted. I am beginning to feel they are making it up as they go along. Shuttleworth agrees they need to come up with a definition of “compatible”.

Hogg is now taking us to Attachment 3 to the report which lists site-specific landowner requests to adjust the boundaries of 51 properties. I see Ballantry Homes, West Hill Development Company Ltd and the names of other developers. (There are no requests for boundary changes in Newmarket but all other municipalities are affected.) Hogg wants to know what the total acreage is that could be gobbled up. The planners don’t know but we are told the Province wants no net loss in Green Belt land.

I don’t need my crystal ball to predict many deputations from salivating developers next week.

Carrot Farmers: a cautionary tale

Now it’s Heath again, this time concerned about the loss of wet lands to agriculture. We hear from Valerie Shuttleworth about the Holland Marsh carrot farmer who lets some of his land lie fallow and, to his horror, is told by the powers-that-be that he can’t turn it back into land for growing carrots.

We are now into a very long to-and-fro discussion about carrot farming. The planners want the Province to resolve the conflict between two of their own policies: protecting (1) the Holland Marsh Speciality Crop Area in the Greenbelt Plan and (2) the Provincially Significant Wetland.

Heath, so often behaving like a shaggy old dog with a bone, wants to know how many carrot farmers we are talking about. Just one? Or is it a much wider problem? If it’s just one he can live with it.

Employment lands

Point made, Heath moves on to employment lands; the issue also raised by Taylor. The planners are recommending:

“the Province develop a process to allow municipalities to access strategically located employment lands, if deemed necessary through a Municipal Comprehensive Review”.

Heath wants to know how much land the planners are talking about, say, east of the 404 to Woodbine. I learn the planners are intentionally not being specific. It is all general and “high level”. Shuttleworth tells us the Region should keep its gunpowder dry and respond in detail when the Province publishes its draft amendments to the plans. Heath, shaking his head, disagrees with this entire approach (as I do) arguing that now is the time to be specific, not later.

Now I am hearing about Whitebelt land (neither urban not Greenbelt) and how it should be protected for development in the longer term, after 2031. It should not be, for example, incorporated into the Greenbelt. Now Mayor Margaret Quirk from Georgina is talking about affordable housing and how this issue needs to be highlighted.

Now we are talking about supporting agricultural viability. Councillors, their faces blank, are told they must address

“compatibility challenges at the interface between urban and rural agricultural land uses”. 

I sense they are ready to call it a day.

On cue steps forward the disgraced Vaughan councillor, Michael Di Biase, who moves that the report is referred to another meeting next week. Agreed. He is still, no doubt, collecting his pay cheque from York Region.

Planning for all-day two-way GO trains

Now Taylor is tying up some loose ends from matters discussed at an earlier meeting of the Region’s Committee of the Whole on 7 May. He wants a report on the implications of the Province’s decision to press ahead with all-day two-way GO trains. Quite right too. What about grade separation (getting rid of level crossings)? What about additional car parking that will be necessary? He fears we could have a 15 minute service (though not from Newmarket) but with only enough parking to service the current numbers of train users.

Frank Scarpetti supports the motion but with caveats. He says we can’t build enough parking spaces for private vehicles. Bravely, he says there’s a limit. He sees transit as the solution – but that’s a battle for tomorrow.

Regrettably, Taylor fails to press home the point he made in January 2014 about sunsetting planning approvals. The Regional planners say the Province should “consider imposing a sunset clause for applications transitioned by the plans”. Shuttleworth tells us landowners should be given a year or two to act on any applications they have in their back pocket. The issue is, of course, wider than this. But what does it take for the Region to address it? *

Van Bynen plays the spectator again

Newmarket's John Taylor is engaged throughout but his sleeping partner, the somnolent Tony Van Bynen, lets yet another meeting pass without uttering a dicky bird. If everyone on York Region acted as he does - as a spectator rather than participant – meetings would be over in five minutes.

I stay to the very end just to see what happens.

Councillor Jim Jones from Markham moves the adoption of various Bylaws affecting Newmarket. Mayor Van Bynen casually raises his hand to second the motion but Jones declines. He tells us he has his own seconder in mind.

Everyone laughs.

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* update on 24 May 2015. As they stand at the moment, the Region's proposals to sunset development rights only apply within the green belt and oak ridges moraine conservation area.

Update on “sunset clauses” on 27 May 2015:  John Taylor has been in touch to say that he pursued the issue of sunset clauses with the Chief Planner, Valerie Shuttleworth, on 21 May 2015. The Region’s proposed submission to the Province (on proposed amendments to the Planning Act and Development Charges Act under Bill 73) did not contain any reference to the issue which Taylor first raised in January 2014. It was overlooked by the planners.

In a memo to all Members of the Regional Council on 21 May 2015 Shuttleworth acknowledged the proposed submission “did not address the following 2014 request” that:

“the Province also consider possible legislative changes to the Planning Act that would allow approval authorities to place time limits on zoning approval, similar to those lapsing provisions already available on plans of subdivision”

(You can see the memo by opening “Documents” in top left panel and navigating to York Region. Open Sunset Clause.)

Although any changes to the legislation would not be retroactive, it would prevent situations arising in future where developers get approval for major projects and then do nothing about it for years, if ever. In the meantime, the value of the land soars as a result of the planning approval. (Slessor Square received planning approval in early 2013 and remains a 4.6 acre patch of dirt. It is now on the market for $15,800,000.)

Taylor’s proposal will be in front of the Regional Council tomorrow (28 May 2015) when it meets to finalise the Region’s submission.


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