Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Removing land from the Greenbelt could open the floodgates (literally)

I have already complained at length about Doug Ford's latest plan to undo one of the few good things that have been done for the environment in recent years by building lots of houses on designated protected Greenbelt land. (More broadly, his passion is to undo anything that was done by a previous Liberal government, on the grounds that he probably objects to it in some way; specifics are not necessary.) This, despite reports from the government's own Housing Affordability Task Force, which concluded that there is actually quite enough land available outside of greenbelts, within existing built-up areas, on which to build, and specifically warned against the temptation to build on agricultural lands.

Now, more information is coming to light on the particular areas that Ford's plan is looking to compromise

The Conservatives' line is that, yes, they are taking out 7,400 acres of protected land and handing it over to a bunch of developers and Tory donors (well, they don't quite phrase it that way), but, lookit, they are adding 9,400 acres of new land somewhere else to the Greenbelt, so what's not to like? Further, the line is that the Ford government is protecting land that truly warrants it, and that the original Greenbelt boundaries were arbitrary, "based more on political science than actual science", as Environment Minister David Piccini explains it.

Well, not so. The areas in question were incorporated into the Greenbelt for good reasons. The Greenbelt was established in 2005 to protect in perpetuity (so much for that!) wetlands, prime agricultural lands, floodplains and other natural features along the edges of the Toronto area conurbation (i.e. those most at risk from development). 

The parcels of land the government plans to lay open to development are mainly prime farmland, part of a contiguous area designated due to its soil quality, soil depth, and mineral and organic content. At least two of the parcels were protected to the highest level, designated for specialty "tender fruit" crops (peaches, cherries, grapes, pears, etc) requiring special soils, climates and farming skills, areas that are "scarce and unique; if lost, they cannot be recreated". Their removal increases the fragmentation of connected farmland, already a problem in southern Ontario: continuous areas of farmland are considered essential for things like moving large slow-moving equipment along public roads, kicking up dust, and producing bad smells (all of which tend to annoy non-agricultural landowners), as well as the ability to share agricultural assets like grain dryers, food processors and distribution centres. Ontario has already lost one-fifth of its farmland in the last 35 years; our government should not be compounding the problem.

Three of the other parcels to be developed include wetlands deemed provincially significant, and several other areas also incorporate wetland areas. Portions of several of the properties are within regulated floodplains, on which it is inadvisable to build residential homes anyway. Ontario is losing wetlands at an ever-increasing rate (three times faster between 2011 and 2015 as between 2000 and 2011, for example). Wetlands, as well as essential for species conservation and water quality improvement, act like sponges after storms, substantially reducing flood damage risks (wetlands can retain water runoff from an area 70 times their size). Many more potential wetland areas remain still unevaluated, as efforts to officially assess areas have been gutted in recent years.

Almost all of the parcels to be removed from the Greenbelt are located in areas designated by the province as natural heritage systems (NHS), interconnected strands of land such as wetlands or habitat for endangered animals and rare plants, that are at least 500m wide (the connectedness is key here).

And finally, consider the area that Mr. Ford is calling compensation (and more) for the 19 smaller parcels to be developed. It is a single plot, immediately west of the Greenbelt's western border, near the town of Erin, on the northeastern fringe of the Paris-Galt moraine. It too is designated as prime agricultural land, and also features wetlands, floodplains and other important natural features. While additions to the protected area are always to be welcomed, even the Greenbelt West Coalition (an organization that exists solely to advocate for the westward expansion of the Greenbelt) describes it as a "random little parcel" and "certainly not the most threatened area" and "certainly not the area of greatest ecological value".

So, a fair swap? Probably not, if only in terms of the increased fragmentation of existing protected lands. But, perhaps a bigger reason is the precedent it sets. If Greenbelt protection can be set aside so easily in this case, it could lead to the opening of the floodgates, in an all-too-literal sense.


If you were in any doubt at all about the Ontario government's attitude towards urban sprawl, consider that the Ford/Clark tag team has vowed to FORCE Hamilton council to build on thousands of acres of rural farmland that the municipality has set aside for its own greenbelt equivalent. Environmental group Ecojustice has launched a court challenge to try to stop this latest example of anti-environmental government overreach from Ford and his henchmen.

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