Places to Grow – What’s Wrong?

Recently, the Neptis Foundation published a report, Implementing the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, examining how well Places to Grow has been implemented:

“This study … paints a picture of an innovative, award-winning plan under pressure and behind schedule. There are also questions about whether the many exceptions made to the provisions of the Plan, the lack of consistent methods in municipal land budgeting, and uncoordinated implementation will, in the end, achieve the Province’s original regional vision.”

I’m quoting liberally below from the Executive Summary of that report (with my emphasis added). I’m also including a link to the Neptis website for those who would like to have the original documents and additional information.

The study “indicates 107,100 hectares (1,071 sq km) an area almost one and half times the size of the City of Toronto will be urbanized across the region by 2031. This is slightly more than the amount specified in the Ontario government’s own call to action in 2004, an amount that would be urbanized under “business-as-usual” development patterns.”

“Before 2006, about 88,000 hectares of land had been designated for further urbanization. As municipalities updated their official plans to conform to the Growth Plan, an additional 19,100 hectares of land were designated for urban expansion. Together the amount of land available for new development totals 107,100 hectares or 1,071 square kilometres.”

Look at that number again – 88,000 hectares had been designated for urban development before 2006. But under earlier administrations, both the Town of Innisfil and Simcoe County originally fought for higher population targets and more growth. The province objected that the Plan did not conform to the Places to Grow legislation. Innisfil’s Official Plan Amendment (OPA1) is still working its way through the appeal process.  The Town of Innisfil’s web site doesn’t mention that the appellant at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) is the Province of Ontario.

The average citizen might be excused for wondering why Places to Grow has so far had a negligible impact on urban sprawl. The short answer is that the key participants – municipalities and developers – have only paid lip-service to the initiative:

 “Most municipalities have adopted the “minimum” targets of the Plan: an intensification target of 40% and a greenfield area density target of 50 people and jobs combined per hectare for undeveloped lands. Only two municipalities plan to exceed these “minimums” and many have been permitted to use even lower targets.

In other words, most municipalities and the Province itself are treating the “minimum” targets as maximum requirements. Many municipalities have set targets below the stated ‘minimum.’”

More Homes, but Fewer Jobs, Fewer Services

Maybe you’re wondering why we should be concerned about this in Innisfil and Simcoe County. The following Neptis graphic shows that Simcoe County has designated perhaps the largest proportion of greenfield land for development in the region:


Source: Neptis Foundation (highlights and emphasis added)

“The Neptis calculations show that nearly half of the land designated for urbanization across the Greater Golden Horseshoe is in the Outer Ring, outside the Greenbelt, even though the Outer Ring
 is expected to attract only one-third as many new residents and one-quarter as many jobs as the Inner Ring. What this means is that the Outer Ring municipalities, many of which do not offer transportation alternatives to the private automobile and do not have well-developed water, sewer, and other infrastructure, will be permitted to recreate the kind of low-density, car-oriented development patterns that have led to problems in the Inner Ring.”

Plans, Zoning and Rezoning

Meanwhile, throughout the protracted delays in implementation, developers take every opportunity to exploit old plans, loopholes such as “grandfathering”, rezoning and OMB appeals. Locally, the Alcona North application is a case in point where the developer amended the size of the development project to fit within restrictions under Places to Grow legislation and then made an appeal to the OMB.

A letter appeared in a Toronto paper some months ago bitterly complaining about the ineffectiveness of zoning bylaws:

“Zoning laws play a very important role in the growth and development of Toronto because they itemize in great detail the specific variances developers have to “apply for,” in order to build whatever planning travesty they feel will be most profitable. Zoning laws inform the city planning department on exactly what variances to recommend to city council, so the developers can do whatever it is they want; and they provide a useful false sense of comfort for the community.”

(Developers get what they want, Toronto Star, July 22, 1013)

The Magnetic Effect of Money

Over in Barrie, in the lands recently annexed from Innisfil, a developer came forward with a proposal to develop 157 acres as an “adult lifestyle” condo community opposite what is a built-up industrial area. Under the proposal, the developer would pay for the cost of infrastructure. Dangling $30 million in front of Barrie councillors has caught their attention” reported the Barrie Examiner (Dec. 12, 2013). However, as of mid-December, Barrie indicated this area would not be developed before 2031:

“Barrie’s plan is to extend water and sewer services past Innisbrook [Golf Course], down to McKay Road and across the highway.

Barrie growth management co-ordinator Eric Hodgins said he’s planning a complete community on the west side of Highway 400, which would include jobs, homes, stores, parks and a natural heritage system linking them together.”
(Retirement community left out of growth plan, Barrie Advance, Dec. 17, 2013)

Politicians face other pressures too. Locally, I’ve heard that it can be more difficult to secure funding for resources such as a new school if the perception is, “You’re not growing fast enough” to be a priority.

Who’s Running Out of Land?

As Neptis reports, “Since the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan were established, representatives of the development industry have argued that the Growth Plan has constrained the land supply and forced up housing costs.” Is this true?

According to research, “The 107,100 hectares set aside to accommodate the forecast increase in population (estimated at 3.7 million people by 2031), shows that in fact, sufficient land has been set aside to accommodate population and employment at average densities similar to those that are typical today. If those densities were to increase, the current land supply would last even longer.”

Political Blindness

Is business-as-usual an appropriate remedy? A white paper issued by the provincial Conservatives, (Paths to Prosperity: Building Great Cities) proposes “killing off the Ontario Liberal’s Places to Grow Act … “I’m going to take municipalities out of the straight jacket of the Places to Grow Act,” according to Conservative leader, Tim Hudak. (Sun News, December 19, 2013). Given the challenges, could there be a more uninformed, obtuse political posture? Places to Grow, even with its weak provisions, hasn’t had a proper opportunity to be implemented. This isn’t the time to turn back. The Ontario government is reviewing land use planning and appeal systems, and the development charges system. Public comment is invited until January 10. 

Places to Grow legislation is scheduled for a tenth year review in 2016.

Previously: Drawing the Line on Growth