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Designed by Polly Ko

Tightening the greenbelt a couple of notches

by John Barber
The Globe and Mail
Sep. 2, 2006

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Anybody who doubts the wisdom of strict paternalism in planning should look to Durham Region, the Wild East, where some local politicians continue to plumb new lows at the behest of the developers whose dollars helped put them in office.

The good news is that Big Daddy is no longer letting them get away with it: The province has already taken over planning in sprawl-happy Pickering, forcibly imposing stricter development controls, and it is currently lowering the boom on the Durham regional government, which is conniving to sprawl into lands protected by brand-new provincial legislation.

The bad news is their amazing persistence. No matter how often they are told the new greenbelt is permanent, local politicians in Durham continue to invent foxy new ways to carve it up.

Earlier this week, they tried one of their sneakiest tricks yet. Unwilling to revise their official plan to reflect new restrictions imposed by the greenbelt, the mayors and councillors torqued the document to include "new growth areas" on greenbelt lands.

To understand how they did it would require immersion in the most dissembling, incomprehensible planning report in the history of that so-called profession, but the upshot is simple. Yes, we will grudgingly change our plan to conform with provincial law, the Durhams said. But as soon as they get rid of the Liberals, they plan to sprawl like mad once again -- as per their attached map.

The expensively dressed developers and their agents who packed the most recent meeting of the Durham planning committee were sincerely grateful for such explicit aid, according to Bonnie Littley of Pickering, who is hoping to unseat long-term councillor Maurice Brenner in the upcoming election. "They gave them a map, for God's sake," she exclaims.

Even though their own planners had previously told the Durhams that there was no need to expand existing urban boundaries before 2031, the councillors still voted to designate 20,000 acres of greenbelt land for future growth. That's 30 square miles of farmland, equivalent to all Toronto south of Bloor Street and the Danforth.

"Once they designate these greenbelt areas they want to roll back, they put a big bull's eye on them," says Ajax Mayor Steve Parish, the only committee member who voted against the dodge -- and the only senior Durham politician who refuses contributions from developers. "Speculation runs rampant. You put something in motion that's really hard to turn back."

Amazingly, Durham's latest sprawl maps include land that the province has already explicitly forbidden it from touching. Even the Mike Harris government struggled to prevent the locals from sprawling onto the Pickering agricultural preserve, just past the Toronto zoo, the last open land bordering the city proper. Faced with continuing fulmination to urbanize the land, the McGuinty government passed a law -- Bill 16, the Duffins-Rouge Agricultural Preserve Act -- to end the game once for all.

Yet in Durham, that protected land is known as the "Cherrywood neighbourhood." As of this week, it is officially slated for sprawl.

They're a colourful bunch, those Durhams. Between now and the election, Pickering Councillor Brenner, Ms. Littley's old-guard opponent, will stand trial for allegedly submitting fraudulent expense claims. Clarington Mayor John Mutton, on the other hand, will have to wait till after the election before defending himself against two charges of assault. Mayor Mutton is currently living with his father under court orders, allowed to venture outdoors only while in "an alcohol-free state." He is promising the citizens of his instant town to lobby for the expansion of the local nuclear reactor.

No, it's not The Simpsons. It's real. As key players in the lucrative sprawl business, these figures make multi-million-dollar decisions that determine the future of the urban region for decades, if not forever.

Why does it still go on?

Mayor Parish and the small band of reformers he is helping to inspire have a ready answer: money.

As in so many suburban municipalities around Toronto that still have green fields, local politicians rely to an astonishing degree on the development industry to finance their campaigns. Take the case of Whitby, just past Pickering. With more than 70,000 eligible voters, only 25 ordinary individuals made contributions of more than $100 to any campaigns in the 2003 election, according to a study of municipal election finance by Robert MacDermid of York University. Four out of every five dollars raised came from corporations -- overwhelmingly those connected with development, according to Prof. MacDermid.

Whitby Mayor Marcel Brunelle raised $17,650 from developers, according to Prof. MacDermid, while his challenger, Judy Griffiths, received nothing. Voter turnout in the Whitby election was an appallingly low 20 per cent.

So once again the province is going to have to crack heads when Mayor Brunelle and his colleagues vote in council to carve up more farmland for their buddies later this month. But the ministers could save themselves a lot of trouble -- now and in the future -- if they simply banned corporations from contributing to municipal election campaigns.

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