Ontario’s Greenbelt architect launches defence of anti-sprawl policies
By Jeff Gray Globe and Mail May 11 2017
The chief architect of Ontario’s farmland-protecting Greenbelt is speaking out against what he calls a “misleading” campaign being waged by the development industry and aimed at blaming the province’s anti-sprawl policies for the Toronto area’s skyrocketing house prices.
In an unusual move for a civil servant, Victor Doyle, now serving as a manager in the province’s planning policy branch, is publicly releasing his own 25-page paper defending both the Greenbelt and the province’s Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which is supposed to force municipalities to build more densely.
Mr. Doyle says he has been warning his bosses that the industry has been using what he calls “selective” and “inaccurate” information to convince the public that the two policies have cut off the supply of land in the greater Toronto area for “ground-related” homes – detached, semi-detached and townhouses – which have seen the steepest price increases.
“No one has provided a factual rebuttal and explained how the plans have provided a very measured, incremental, approach to gradually shifting our housing mix over time,” Mr. Doyle said in an interview.
“The notion that the plans have constrained the supply of ground-related units is completely false, in the long-term planning.”
His intervention in the debate comes even as the Ontario government is expected to announce next week that it is tightening the Growth Plan along the lines proposed by a panel led by former Toronto mayor David Crombie. Mr. Doyle fears that criticism of the Growth Plan will continue with a provincial election on the horizon. In recent months, there has been a wave of newspaper op-eds, reports and media releases from some in the development industry and others critical of the Growth Plan.
It’s not the first time Mr. Doyle, the former manager of community planning for Central Ontario, has spoken out without the say-so of his superiors. He is currently challenging the discipline he faced in 2009, when he was shifted into his current job after he publicly criticized the province’s so-called Simcoe Strategy, which allowed for substantial new development in Simcoe County, leapfrogging the Greenbelt. His case is mired in procedural wrangling before the Ontario Public Service Grievance Board, a tribunal that hears employment disputes between Ontario bureaucrats and their bosses.
In his new paper, Mr. Doyle says the Growth Plan, which he also helped create, has actually only made a small start on steering Ontario away from suburban sprawl: “We have barely shifted the needle.”
Launched in 2006, the plan mandates municipalities to put 40 per cent of their growth inside their existing municipal boundaries. It also forces them to build more densely on new greenfield sites. The proposed changes would tighten these rules.
But Mr. Doyle says that excluding Toronto, as of 2006, there were already 800,000 ground-related housing units planned to accommodate growth projected to 2031 in the Greater Golden Horseshoe on greenfield sites, he said.
About 510,000 of them remain unbuilt. If all are eventually built, they could accommodate 85 per cent of the region’s 2.9 million in projected population growth, excluding Toronto, all on their own, Mr. Doyle says.
By 2031, he says, despite the Growth Plan, the overall composition of the region’s housing stock (including Toronto) will barely shift: Apartments will go from 34 per cent to 35 per cent, while single-family homes will decrease from 51 per cent to 48 per cent of all housing.
On top of all of those ground-related units already in the pipeline, a demographic bulge is coming that Mr. Doyle says will flood the market with the large, suburban single-family homes now occupied by baby boomers.
In the Greater Golden Horseshoe – which stretches from Niagara Falls to Oshawa – there were about 700,000 owners of ground-related homes 55 years or older in 2006, according to Statistics Canada. The youngest of this group will have turned 90 by 2041, meaning virtually all of those homes will have been put on the market by then, Mr. Doyle says.
In his paper, Mr. Doyle also cites research from across Canada and the U.S. concluding that a more compact urban form is 30-per-cent to 50-per-cent cheaper to maintain, compared to low-density development. A 2009 Calgary study concluded that developing the city 25-per-cent more densely would save 33 per cent ($11.2-billion) in infrastructure costs over 25 years, he writes.
Bryan Tuckey, president and chief executive officer of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), has long labelled the Growth Plan as a major factor behind a squeeze on low-density housing that is driving up prices, and urged the province to back off its plans to tighten the rules – although he also says builders have adapted to the Growth Plan.
He says the group has never used selective or misleading numbers. He noted the government keeps releasing its own statistics that appear to clash with the data BILD has access to, which show builder inventories at record low levels and house prices shooting skyward.
“That’s fine. Give us their [information] and we’ll go through it,” he said. “We only provide fact-based information.”
Veteran planning and land economist Don Given, of consulting firm Malone Given Parsons Ltd., has worked for GTA developers for years and also questions some of Mr. Doyle’s numbers.
He says the Growth Plan has been reducing sites for low-density homes and forcing municipalities and developers to comply with new red tape and environmental rules that slow the approvals process to a crawl, crimping supply.
“The problem we have is that the approval time frame to get that land is much longer than anybody first thought,” Mr. Given said in an interview, adding some municipalities still do not have their official plans in line with the Growth Plan, a decade later, which adds to the delays. “The ability to deliver the land in the time we need it is the issue.”