The Greenbelt: Letting the Belt out a Notch or Two

Should the Greenbelt be expanded? The central purpose of the plan is to protect farmland and environmentally sensitive land on the urban fringe.

March 21, 2010 | | Environment

Should the Greenbelt be expanded? The central purpose of the plan is to protect farmland and environmentally sensitive land on the urban fringe. Ironically, it is those in agriculture who are among the most vocal critics of Greenbelt expansion.

So, it’s all good with the Greenbelt, right?

The Ontario Greenbelt Plan and Legislation were enacted in 2005 in an attempt to curb urban sprawl on some 1.8 million acres in a giant band surrounding the Toronto to Hamilton urban core.

The initiative – covering an area bigger than Prince Edward Island – has earned international acclaim and proven popular at home. A 2009 Environics poll, on behalf of the provincially funded, not-for-profit Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, shows 93 per cent of Ontarians indicate some level of support for the Greenbelt, with only 4 per cent who remain opposed.  (Please tell us what you think: comment at the bottom of the article.)

In 2008, with the ink barely dry on this spiffy new plan, the province announced criteria that would allow municipalities to include themselves in the Greenbelt on a voluntary basis. The criteria specified that lower-tier municipalities must specifically ask to be included in the plan area, and have the support of the upper-tier municipality as well. So far, no municipalities have made the request, though a few have said they are thinking it over. Any requests will be considered as part of a ten-year Greenbelt Plan review in 2015.

The Ontario Greenbelt Alliance is a coalition of more than eighty environmental groups, coordinated by the Environmental Defence organization. A few months after the Greenbelt expansion criteria were announced, the Alliance released their vision for growing the Greenbelt. Called Greenbelt 2.0, the proposal includes a map showing the Greenbelt ballooning by a further 1.2 million acres, or 66 per cent.

 “Thickening around the Middle: The Greenbelt Alliance calls for a huge expansion of the protected countryside”  (includes a map of the proposed greenbelt expansion).
Download the PDF here.

In the Headwaters region, the proposed expansion would add almost all of Erin, Mono and Mulmur, large portions of East Garafraxa and East Luther (including Luther Marsh), and tip into Melancthon and Amaranth. In Caledon, already largely under Greenbelt control, portions of the so-called “White Belt,” unprotected lands to the south, would also be included. Added, too, would be all the lands in neighbouring Simcoe, up to Georgian Bay.

The central purpose of the plan is to protect farmland and environmentally sensitive land on the urban fringe from development. Ironically, it is those in agriculture – the very sector the plan aims to help – who are among the most vocal critics of Greenbelt expansion.

Would expanding the Greenbelt be a good way to preserve more countryside, or is it just another layer of run-amok environmental bureaucracy?

Given that the plan and legislation are still relatively new, the debate tends to centre on the very existence of the Greenbelt, rather than the merits of expanding it. In essence, there are three camps in the argument. There are those who think all Greenbelts are good, those who think all Greenbelts are bad, and those in the middle who like the concept of a greenbelt, but question whether this Greenbelt is doing the job.

Agriculture in the Greenbelt. Jeff Rollings interviews Karen Hutchinson, a farmer and executive director of Caledon Countryside Alliance.
Read the article here.

Why Worry?

Harvey Kolodny is a board member of the Mono Mulmur Citizens’ Coalition, or MC2. A professor emeritus at the Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto, Kolodny chaired a public forum on Greenbelt expansion held in Mono Centre in November.

Tell Harvey you’re looking for someone to speak in favour of Greenbelt expansion and he holds up his hand and says “Pick me.” Also a supporter of Places to Grow, the provincial plan for directing where population growth will happen, Kolodny says “I think the Greenbelt has done a terrific job of protecting us from sprawl. I give the province enormous credit for their efforts.”

Kolodny cites a long list of benefits from the Greenbelt, primarily environmental. Not only does he see it preserving the woodlands, wetlands and water resources surrounding the GTA, he also feels it raises awareness about the importance of environmental considerations. He points out that the Greenbelt is consistent with the principle of living “green,” and as such is “in alignment with most of our population’s current preferences, especially the younger generation.”

Beyond direct environmental benefits, Kolodny also sees a business advantage. “Combined with the extensive artistic community in the Headwaters area, the Greenbelt can make Headwaters a culturally attractive destination for GTA residents and tourism in general.” In short, Kolodny takes the “greater common good” view: that the benefits of the Greenbelt for the many outweigh the concerns of the few who feel negatively affected.

While acknowledging that the plan overrides municipal planning controls, he points to numerous examples of what he sees as bad local planning, and says, “I have more faith in the province.” Beyond that, he adds, “The Greenbelt doesn’t stop local planning; it just has rules for how to do it.”

David Pond, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, wrote a 2009 paper entitled “Ontario’s Greenbelt: Growth Management, Farmland Protection, and Regime Change in Southern Ontario,” which appeared in the publication Canadian Public Policy. He sees the Greenbelt and Places to Grow as a return to centralized provincial planning, similar to the 1960s, and points out the Niagara Escarpment Commission was a product of that era, as were “compact, livable communities in downtown Toronto.”

Pond agrees with Harvey Kolodny’s opinion about the need for a provincial plan: “Only the province has the authority and the jurisdiction to implement a co-ordinated response to the all-encompassing challenge of sprawl.”

Municipal councils are prone to take the expedient short view, says Kolodny “There’s so much turnover, and that’s dangerous. Who knows what agenda some future council might have? The Greenbelt protects us from municipalities that see housing development as their primary path to growth and from municipalities that bend to local pressures and have no long-term planning in place.”

Kolodny sees the population in Headwaters as being “in transition,” and although he acknowledges that the agricultural sector is generally opposed to Greenbelt expansion, he says “I’m not convinced that [the Greenbelt] is not of interest to the rural population in this area. Agriculture is a declining activity here. Farmers make up a very small percentage of the population now, and even that is disappearing fast.” Indeed, that is true in Mono and Mulmur, where the number of full-time farmers has dwindled to a handful.

Region-wide, among those farmers who are left, some had banked on selling out to developers for a hefty profi t. Now that development is tightly restricted, many fear the value of their land will plummet. However, Kolodny sees it differently. “The reality is, if a farmer wants to sell, he’ll find city people who will buy it at a good price.”

Is the Greenbelt doing what it set out to do? “I think so,” Kolodny says. “It was meant to put a band around the city to stop sprawl, and I think it’s doing that. But it didn’t handle the leapfrog issue well. So now, north of the Greenbelt, developers are buying all the land.”

Though Kolodny feels expanding the Greenbelt would help resolve that, he doesn’t hold out much hope that the expansion will go ahead. “Expansion will never happen in this part of the world,” he says, explaining that he feels there is a lot of suspicion of the province locally, along with a deep-seated resistance to anything perceived as loss of control. “There’s this attitude that ‘we have to fight.’ I can understand how that happens, but I disagree.”

For expansion to take place here, he says, “The politics would have to change.”

Sultans of Swing

Richard Paterak, a regional councillor in Caledon, supports the Greenbelt, but not without some reservations.

About two-thirds of Caledon is covered by the Greenbelt, and from the perspective of five years within its jurisdiction, Paterak says, “To my mind the Greenbelt Plan is a fully justifi able exercise to control sprawl and should have been sold to the public on that basis. The aspect of controlling sprawl is what I fi nd most appealing in the Greenbelt Plan.”

However, he adds, “What I didn’t like about the Greenbelt Plan was the rollout. In the rollout, and continuing today, it is claimed that the purpose of the plan is to preserve farmland. In fact, there was no concerted analysis of the quality of the agricultural acreage included in the plan or of what was left out … In Caledon the so-called ‘White Belt’ includes land that is of higher agricultural value than much of what is in the Greenbelt Plan.”

Caledon has long maintained tough municipal regulations aimed at protecting its rural countryside, and despite the stated purpose of the Greenbelt Plan to protect land from development, in some parts of Caledon it had the opposite effect.

“The Greenbelt upset the apple cart a bit,” Paterak says, “because it left a large part of the Peel Plain out of the Greenbelt Plan and in the White Belt. The day this news got out, land speculators swarmed up and down the farm lanes of south Albion and Chinguacousy trying to entice sales – and they have been successful.”

Paterak has other quibbles. “I also didn’t like how the Protected Countryside and Natural Heritage Systems were drawn on the map, sometimes with little knowledge of what was on the ground. This weakened the government’s arguments because property owners had their land evaluated based on a computer program that analyzed air photos, often incorrectly.”

Errors in Greenbelt mapping can also affect the local economy. Paterak explains, “In the recent past Caledon has seen that although tourism development is allowed in the Greenbelt Plan, it may be fraught with diffi culties due to the poorly drawn boundaries and inclusion of inappropriately attributed Natural Heritage Systems. I highlight tourism because tourism is the only area of economic activity that can be beneficial to the tax base within the Greenbelt Plan.”

Noting that the Greenbelt is often promoted to the urban population as a place to pursue recreation, Paterak says, “Those urbanites can have a positive impact on the fi scal reality of municipalities if they are allowed to do more than hike and picnic in the Greenbelt.”

In the short term, Paterak feels the Greenbelt Plan has added confusion to the local planning process. “In Caledon we have land that is both in the Greenbelt Plan and in the Niagara Escarpment Plan or land that is in the Greenbelt Plan and the Oak Ridges Moraine Plan, and land that is just in the Greenbelt Plan. This makes for some complicated explanations when landowners come to our planning department with questions about their property.”

However, he is optimistic that the confusion will fade as property owners educate themselves. “I think slowly but surely this is ironing itself out.”

For Paterak, there is one more important concern. The Greenbelt Plan strictly prohibits bringing lakebased water and sewage services into the plan area. Water is already piped from Lake Ontario to Bolton and Mayfield West in Caledon, but the so-called “Big Pipe” solution of importing water from one ecosystem to support another is anathema to environmentalists, and the Greenbelt Plan reflects that. However, some northern settlement areas in Caledon are also experiencing water supply problems.

Paterak notes that in Places to Grow, the province dictates to municipalities that they must accept specific amounts of population growth. And he sees that leading to conflict, particularly in cases where well-based sources of water are either unavailable, or too costly to install. “If it becomes necessary to bring in lake-based services, there will be unnecessary delay or even no action. It’s the sort of thing that can only be addressed at the time of plan review and the province will be under great pressure to be seen as not watering down the Greenbelt Plan – no pun intended – while municipalities are required to provide these services.”

Despite his concerns, Paterak’s support for the Greenbelt remains. What’s more, he takes the go-big-or-stay-home approach: that expansion is perhaps the best hope for long term protection. His advice for other municipalities debating the issue is that “if they want to avoid being commuter corridors with high road costs, they should consider adding significant areas to the Greenbelt.” That way, he says, “Commuting through the Greenbelt will be very unattractive economically and time-wise.”

Mulmur Township planner Ron Mills is the first to admit he’s conflicted. Raised on a Beaver Valley farm, he remembers implementation of the Niagara Escarpment Plan in the 1970s, and the local resistance that came along with it. Now, however, he sees the long-term benefit of the escarpment plan.

When it comes to the Greenbelt, he also sees benefits. He supports efforts to identify and map core environmental areas and the linkages between them. He agrees with the need to curb sprawl, and he feels that in the long-term the Greenbelt, like the Niagara Escarpment Plan, will likely be seen as positive.

However, for Mills, like Richard Paterak, the devil is in the details. He feels the motives behind the rush to expand the Greenbelt are questionable, the agricultural policies are a farce, and that it is premature to consider expansion until we better understand the impact of the existing Greenbelt.

While acknowledging that a majority of GTA residents support expansion of the Greenbelt, Mills suggests that is because an overwhelming majority of the population in the Greater Golden Horseshoe is urban. The Environics poll showed that urbanites have little concept of what Greenbelt restrictions actually mean, beyond the simple fact they’re supposed to be “green,” and they experience no direct impact from the legislation.

David Pond describes this as a “wealth transfer.” Urban supporters of the Greenbelt don’t pay any direct taxes to finance it, because there is no compensation to the rural landowners who maintain it. The government promotes this as a cost-free benefit to the majority urban electorate, while the rural minority covers the expense.

While the urbanites like it but don’t understand it, Ron Mills says, “For the people to whom it matters the most, the landowners who will be the most impacted, the reverse is true.” The Environics study shows most rural landowners are educated about the implications of the Greenbelt, and, by Mills’ estimation, “a majority of them say ‘Leave us alone’.”

It’s not hard to understand why farmers might be skeptical. A 2007 study by Richard Vyn at the University of Guelph, entitled “The Effects of Strict Agricultural Zoning on Farmland Values: The Case of Ontario’s Greenbelt,” found that “over half of the Greenbelt area is negatively impacted by more than a 25 per cent decrease in the value of land assets.” Not surprisingly, the greatest negative impact is in the developer-enticing land close to the GTA, and dissipates farther away from the urban border.

For those leapfrog lands just beyond the Greenbelt, however, Vyn – who won an award from the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society for his work – says the opposite is true. There, he found increases averaging from 17 to 27 per cent, and as high as 43 per cent.

Reflecting on the oft-stated intent of the Greenbelt plan to protect agriculture, and a second University of Guelph study that shows animal agriculture is declining at a faster rate within the Greenbelt than outside it, Ron Mills concludes, “The whole premise of protecting agriculture and agricultural land is way overblown. Agricultural land is already well protected, and even with the Greenbelt, where development commitments have been made, they’re still going to be honoured. In areas where there’s more pressure to urbanize, the Greenbelt will prevent some development, but it’s impossible to stop it all.

“I don’t think the province really cares if agriculture happens in the Greenbelt. The province’s priority is to protect land, not farming. You can’t even do farmer retirement severances any more … Expanding the Greenbelt will not help agriculture. Why farm in the Greenbelt with all the regulations, when you can go elsewhere? They’re trying to be responsible and do the right thing, but for the greater public good, at the expense of landowners.”

Mills also has an alternative take on the motivation behind the agricultural policies in the Greenbelt plan: “There is all this talk about protecting agriculture in the Greenbelt, but I wonder if people really understand what that means. The future of agriculture is factory farming. Sure, there are a few family farms left, but now it’s really a big, corporate business. Do we really want factory farms next to subdivisions?”

More likely, thinks Mills, “The province wants to keep it in big chunks for things like wind power and gravel pits. If it’s all cut up in little pieces, it’s less available for what Toronto needs.”

In his view, floating the idea of expanding the Greenbelt is also a “politically sexy, expedient thing” for the province to do. “Anything ‘green’ is in favour. They do need to get reelected, and the Greenbelt helped them do that once already.”

Considering the region’s tiny number of votes compared to the province overall, Mills says “It’s a ‘no lose’ for provincial politicians, but a ‘no-win’ for the locals.”

Mulmur is just putting finishing touches on a brand new official plan and Mills says, “It shows we’re serious about protecting the environment – more serious than the province. Wind turbines, for example, could totally change the face of the township, but the Greenbelt Plan doesn’t say no to those things.”

In the new official plan, he says, “We’ve incorporated all the provincial policy stuff but then we went beyond that. We developed our own policies for rural character and scenic value.” These policies would restrict the development of wind turbines. Mills continues: “We also included enhanced ground and surface water protection. We did those things because they matter to us even though some may fly in the face of provincial interests … All municipalities are not created equally. One-size-fits-all solutions remove accountability and give less say to the grassroots.”

Another factor Mills urges people to consider is the one-way nature of the plan. “The legislation specifically states, once you’re in, you don’t get out.”

Because only five years have passed since the original Greenbelt plan was put in place, there is so far little in the way of hard data regarding the impacts – intended or otherwise – of what is the largest experiment of its kind in the world. Mills says “There’s no way they should expand the Greenbelt before doing a thorough review of impacts from the existing Greenbelt, and then fairly inform people about what they learned.”

Industrial Disease

Statistics from the Ontario Ministry of Public Infrastructure Renewal indicate that more than 148,000 acres of GTA farmland were lost to urbanization between 1976 and 1996. Despite this loss, and others across the province, Ontario’s farm economy as a whole has remained highly successful, consistently outperforming other provinces.

As David Pond says, “Fewer farmers are producing more on a smaller land base.” And he goes on to quote research to show that “the conversion of agricultural land into other uses is a manifestation of the success of the agricultural economy, not its failure.”

The reality is the industry will continue to shed land as long as the economics are favourable, regardless of the Greenbelt and even if the sell-off strategy is short-sighted in the face of population growth, climate change, peak oil, or the geopolitics of food security. At least, until such time as those issues overtake the realpolitik.

So, if the agricultural industry is shedding that land, and now we’ve said the developers can’t have it, who will have it?

Yes, perhaps a big chunk will go to rich weekenders, seeking to escape the apartment belt, and the horsey set, but given how vast an area the Greenbelt is, that will only account for so much. And who else can afford it?

Here’s a pessimist’s scenario: Some future provincial government, or a series of them, who need to feed, house, transport and provide energy for millions of new people don’t take quite such a look-at-all-the-pretty-birdies approach.

The green in Greenbelt could start to look more like money than environment. More like a huge swath of aggregate quarries, wind farms and corporate agriculture, all of which are permitted by the Greenbelt Plan.

Then we have highways for all those trucks, corridors for hydro transmission lines, transit connections and goods movement, all feeding the demands of a massive, densely packed and energy-hungry urban population outside the Greenbelt boundaries. That’s all permitted too.

Crazy you say? Well, on a smaller scale that’s pretty much what happened to the Parkway Belt, Conservative Premier Bill Davis’s first attempt at a greenbelt, which today is the 407 highway and a hydro transmission corridor.

Something else to consider: already, aggregates, wind farming, corporate agriculture and a rail connection are the cornerstones of a backed-by-billions business plan proposed by the Highland Companies for thousands of acres in Melancthon Township. Melancthon is also home to one of Ontario’s most prominent wind farms, approved and built with lightning speed.

Would the situation in Melancthon be different if the township were part of the Greenbelt? Not a whit.

In that Greenbelt-as-Industrial-Belt scenario – the place where Toronto hides the pantry, the electrical panel and the kitty litter – when the pit is proposed next door, or the soaring towers of a wind farm engulf the view in all directions, how many of us will still be prepared to argue that greater public good trumps the concerns of a handful of locals?

In any event, as family farms become factory farms, the feed mills are turned into trendy restaurants, and the farmers’ dirty old pick-ups are replaced by the lawyers in Cadillac Escalades nipping out to their weekend hideaways, we will most certainly not be the small-town agricultural community we once were.

More Info

The Ontario Greenbelt Alliance has recently released “Green Among the Grey: Fifth Anniversary Progress Report on the Greater Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt.” It identifies key threats to Greenbelt, such as in – appropriate infrastructure, aggregate mining and leapfrog development, and recommends significant changes to aggregate and agricultural policies within the plan area.  The full report is available here.

Referencs and Links

About the Author More by Jeff Rollings

Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Caledon.

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