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
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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