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Anti-sprawl plan for GTA and beyond gets an update

By Jennifer Pagliaro,
Toronto Star,
May 18 2017

Renewed provincial policies focus growth around transit hubs and already built-up areas while holding the line on protected Greenbelt lands.

The province is strengthening anti-sprawl policies across the GTA and beyond with an updated plan for how cities should grow.

While the update to the province’s growth plan and others only builds on a direction Toronto has been headed since the plans were introduced 10 years ago – including to protect employment lands and boost density around transit stations – several of the changes will be more strongly felt in the fast-growing 905 and other regions outside Toronto.

“That growth will present us with significant challenges and countless opportunities,” Minister of Municipal Affairs Bill Mauro told reporters at a press conference in Liberty Village on Thursday. “As we move forward we need to make sure we’re headed in the right direction and that’s the purpose of these four plans.”

The province has mandated that the cities grow to accommodate a minimum of 200 residents and jobs per hectare (or 10,000 square metres) near subway stops or 160 residents and jobs per hectare for light rail or rapid bus transit.

While some of Toronto’s subway network runs through established, low-density neighbourhoods, the plan now spells out that the minimum target can be averaged out across four or more stations in the same area, along the same line.

Importantly, for the suburbs, it requires 150 residents and jobs per hectare around GO train service, for which the province is currently planning several new stops as part of expanded and electrified service. The changes would not be required for the entire GO rail network.

In an effort to protect employment lands for future office growth, the province has also added another layer of protection by requiring cities to seek provincial approval to convert those lands for residential or non-employment use.

Neptis Foundation executive director Marcy Burchfield said the updated plans are a “balancing act” between a push to aggressively curb sprawl and those looking for a slower approach to intensification.

“I think overall the long-term goal is to slow down sprawl, is to build a more compact, connected region and this plan reflects that,” Burchfield said. “That’s still the main goal here.”

The Ontario Home Builders’ Association, one of the largest groups representing developers, said in a statement that they are still concerned the policies restrict new housing growth – a message that has been pushed throughout the review by industry players.

“This new growth plan will not alleviate either the housing supply crunch or escalating housing prices, however we believe that new interim targets and the recognition by the province for needed local flexibility will provide a smoother transition,” CEO Joe Vaccaro was quoted as saying in a release.

Former Toronto mayor David Crombie told reporters Thursday the argument there is a land supply issue has clearly been “debunked” by research from Neptis and others.

Burchfield agreed “it’s clearly been shown that municipalities have planned for enough land” to at least the original 2031 horizon of the growth plan and that there is still “plenty of land for them to grow into,” something she said both cities and the province have recognized.

While environmental groups generally praised the ongoing commitment to protecting the greenbelt in the face of development pressures, it came with concerns that some ground had been unexpectedly lost.

A joint release from conservation groups that included Earthroots and Ontario Nature said the updated plan is “generally heading in the right direction” but includes “some key missteps” that “indicate a questionable commitment to the long-term protection of the region’s water, nature and communities.”

The new policies, the statement says, weaken protections for the habitat of endangered species by removing safeguards that were previously in place.

“On one hand we’re pleased the government has committed to protecting the greater Golden Horseshoe’s natural heritage system,” Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s director of conservation and education is quoted as saying in the release. “On the other hand, if the policies don’t protect species at risk in the Oak Ridges Moraine and greenbelt, where is there left for those species to go?”

And while the province added 21 urban river valleys, seven related coastal wetlands and five other land areas in Hamilton, Niagara and Halton Hills to the protected greenbelt, PC critic for municipal affairs MPP Ernie Hardeman wrote to the minister Thursday noting 17 other parcels of land have been removed – an increase from a previously released list.

“It appears some of these properties are being removed so they can be developed,” Hardeman wrote, calling for details on the lands removed and the reasons for doing so. “Already there have been criticisms that the process to select these parcels of land was not transparent.”

The changes dovetail with an announcement earlier this week on the province’s plans to significantly overhaul the Ontario Municipal Board, the quasi-judicial body that handles land use planning disputes.

Those reforms gives much of the power for dictating what can be built and where to cities. The remade body, to be called the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal, will deal with whether the city followed its own rules and if council’s decision was consistent with provincial policies.