Showdown at the Oak Ridges Moraine
Scenic green space or urban
sprawl? The battle lines have been drawn
by Brian McAndrew
The Toronto Star
Feb. 12, 2000
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Lloyd Cherniak, executive vice-president of Lebovic Enterprises,
one of the biggest suburban housing developers and a major
landowner on the moraine.
Debbe Crandall wasn't supposed to have much impact in one
of the first battles against housing development on the Oak
Ten years ago a well-connected local housing developer -
the brother of the mayor - wanted to build a sprawling subdivision
that would have backed on to her family's farm where she grew
up in the rolling hills of Caledon East.
But she persevered - and won. The picturesque, snow-covered
hills behind her horse ranch north of Bolton remain untouched.
Crandall is still at it as the resolute executive director
of STORM (Save the Oak Ridges Moraine), the little coalition
that takes on development giants.
Now, the biggest showdown of all is coming between environmental
activists and an army of wealthy developers who would prefer
to cover the unique landform stretching across the top of
Greater Toronto with houses.
The future of the moraine, a ridge pinched together by a
pair of glaciers about 13,000 years ago, is on the line. Will
there be a healthy green belt protecting the headwaters of
the rivers and streams flowing through the country's biggest
and most rapidly growing region? Or is the moraine destined
to be just another suburb?
Rapid urban growth threatens the ability of the layers of
sand and gravel beneath the moraine's thin surface of topsoil
to absorb rain and replenish the aquifers that act like massive
underground storage tanks. They feed the headwaters of more
than 30 rivers and major streams flowing through an area of
about 1 million hectares between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe.
More than 400,000 people in York region rely on the moraine
for water. About the only pure water flowing in the Don, Humber
and Rouge rivers comes from springs gushing out of the moraine.
Continued housing development in Richmond Hill, which includes
the highest point of the moraine in the tiny community of
Oak Ridges on Yonge St., is creating a break in the natural
green corridor - the backbone of Greater Toronto - that stretches
160-kilometres from the Niagara Escarpment to the southern
shore of Rice Lake.
Like the first time Crandall took on the establishment, the
odds are stacked against her and other allies in the like-minded
environmental community that includes the Kettle Lakes Coalition,
Save the Rouge Valley System, Federation of Ontario Naturalists
The York, Durham and Peel regions have planned for population
growth of 98,000 on the moraine over the next 20 years. There
are 14 housing development proposals in York and six in Durham
that would add another 56,000 people if they are approved.
That's like adding the entire population of Oshawa to the
more than 110,000 people already living on the moraine.
Housing developers see the moraine as fertile territory for
"I'm like a farmer," boasts Lloyd Cherniak, executive
vice-president of Lebovic Enterprises, one of the biggest
suburban housing developers and a major landowner on the moraine.
"I plant sewers in the spring and houses pop up in the
The attitude grates on environmentalists who believe the
development sector is out of control while the provincial
government feigns concern but fails to act.
"What this is all about is getting an anti-urban sprawl
policy in place from the provincial government," says
Crandall. "The moraine is the springboard. This is where
the (Greater Toronto) waters begin. If we can't stop urban
sprawl here, we won't ever be able to stop it."
The war for the moraine is raging on three different fronts
near Uxbridge, King City and on the biggest battlefield of
all, Richmond Hill.
In King City, an Ontario Municipal Board decision is being
awaited to determine if a sewer line will be extended from
Bathurst St. in Richmond Hill.
Build a pipe and they will come. The village, just west of
Richmond Hill near Highway 400, would see its population double
from 5,000 to 10,000. Installing a new sewer line opens up
opportunity for even greater expansion.
A municipal hearing is pending over the contentious Gan Eden
proposal near Uxbridge in Durham Region. Joey Tannenbaum,
the aging industrialist and arts philanthropist, wants to
turn a family enclave into 2,500 houses and an arts centre
that could become a summer home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
This, too, would require a major 22-kilometre extension of
the shared York-Durham sewer system. Both Uxbridge and Durham
councils have said no to the project but Tannenbaum remains
undeterred having filed an appeal to the municipal board even
before the councils made their decisions.
Waterfront Regeneration Trust commissioner David Crombie
finds a disturbing trend emerging with developers running
to the municipal board before local councils deal with the
"Talk about getting it backward. This gives the right
to the developers to disregard the democratic process,"
says Crombie, whose organization is concerned about the future
of the moraine's headwaters.
The municipal board makes its decisions based on provincial
policies - not municipal wishes - and that has given developers
the advantage in having their way with the moraine, Crombie
There is no substantive provincial policy for development
along the moraine, just a weak set of guidelines established
in 1991 in anticipation of regulation coming after a $2 million
The study landed on then-natural resources minister Howard
Hampton's desk in 1994 as an election loomed. The Conservatives
took over in 1995 and shelved the report with its recommendations
that most environmentalists find acceptable for controlling
Cabinet minister Tony Clement, who holds both the environment
and municipal affairs portfolios that would be seemingly at
odds when dealing with moraine development issues, has insisted
the 1991 guidelines are sufficient.
"We have something in place that is workable if applied
properly. It can provide a balance," Clement says.
He has rejected calls for a freeze on moraine development
until the province can come up with a development policy.
Crombie says the province must act quickly to protect the
"Only the province can put this in context and they
have failed to do that," he says.
Meanwhile, developers are pushing ahead, determined to take
advantage of the absence of provincial participation and increased
pressure on municipal planning offices.
Richmond Hill planning commissioner Janet Babcock will tell
anyone willing to listen that her department has been overwhelmed
by the combination of the downloading of planning responsibilities
by the province and the large numbers of housing proposals
"We have been and we are the battleground for development
on the Oak Ridges Moraine," says Babcock. "For the
past three years we have asked the province for funding for
hydrogeology (groundwater) studies and legislation but the
province has said no. We don't need a freeze on development
but we need the 1994 strategy adopted."
Developers have plans for putting 11,000 homes on the moraine
at Richmond Hill. The council will continue debating the proposed
rezoning of the 2,800 hectares of rural and agricultural land
on Feb. 23.
Richmond Hill council has encouraged housing development
on the moraine more than any other elected body.
Cherniak, also head of the Urban Development Association,
insists the development industry has little influence on the
Richmond Hill council despite the amount of election campaign
contributions made to nearly every councillor.
Developers with holdings on the moraine contributed more
than $20,000 in Richmond Hill during the last municipal election.
The amounts ranged from $1,250 to Councillor Brenda Hogg
- the only critic of the development plans - to $3,200 to
Councillor David Cohen. Only Councillor Joe DiPaola received
"I don't have an open door to councillors or the planning
staff," Cherniak said. "I have to fight for every
piece of information I get."
There has been a groundswell of public support to protect
Volunteers are to begin Monday delivering 20,000 small plastic
bags of wood chips gathered from the moraine's Jefferson Forest
that has been cut for Bayview Ave. road expansion.
Glenn De Baeremaeker, an ardent Rouge Valley advocate and
organizer with the Kettle Lakes Coalition, is behind the drive
to whip up community support to turn the much of the proposed
Richmond Hill development properties into a 1,200-hectare
Kettle Lakes park.
(The lakes were formed by large blocks of ice left beneath
the ground during the glacial period. When the ice melted,
the deep, steep-sided depressions left behind were shaped
Richmond Hill is expecting a huge turn-out for the Feb. 23
meeting, moving from the municipal hall to a Sheraton hotel
Beyond the park, STORM and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists
have worked out several options they want the province to
consider to provide better protection for the moraine.
The recommendations include:
Strict land-use polices setting boundaries where development
would be prohibited.
Freeze public spending on sewer, roads and water main construction
that would bring the most immediate development proposals
to a halt.
Devote five per cent of the province's $20-billion SuperBuild
growth fund to purchase land on the moraine for parks.
Surcharges on allowed housing and golf course developments
to help fund parkland purchases.
Debbe Crandall suggests giving developers the chance to build
more houses on other properties in exchange for land holdings
on the moraine, a process known as a density transfer.
"The question we have to ask with all this development
is are we being fenced in or is the environment being fenced
out?" Crandall says.
Adds De Baeremaeker: "A lot of these developers just
see us as standing in the way of creating a happy world but
public pressure has to be able to change this tidal wave of
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