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LSRCA permit for subdivision in Georgina wetland prompts harsh backlash

In Agencies
Mar 27th, 2018
Councillor Dave Neeson and Jack Gibbons -Metroland photo

Georgina Ward 3 Counc. Dave Neeson (left) and North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance Chair Jack Gibbons at the LRSCA board meeting. -Metroland photo

March 23 board decision met with chorus of ‘shame on you’ from standing-room-only crowd

by Heidi Riedner Georgina Advocate

Pursuing a land swap to save a provincially significant wetland in Georgina from a development approved 30 years ago has been the political position of town council to date, but elected officials may now have to consider a costly legal battle as part of their options moving forward after the DG Group’s Maple Lake Estates (MLE) subdivision was given the green light by the conservation authority, despite objections from the town.

“Shame on you,” was the resounding chorus that erupted from the standing-room-only crowd levelled against the 12 board members of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) who unanimously voted March 23 in favour of granting what’s called a section 28 permit for the 1,073-unit subdivision located on the Paradise Beach-Island Grove wetland in the North Gwillimbury Forest.

On the heels of the decision, NDP Municipal Affairs and Housing critic Percy Hatfield had similar criticism for the authority.

“Once again, we see the interests of a developer being given more priority by a conservation authority than the interests of local residents or the very environment (they) are supposed to be protecting,” Hatfield wrote in a March 26 letter to provincial ministers of municipal affairs, environment and natural resources and forestry, calling on the province to step in either by issuing a zoning order removing development approvals for the property or by any other action “to stop this giant subdivision in its tracks.”

The decision to approve the permit flew in the face of opposition from many members of the public and heavy-hitting environmental groups, including a deputation by North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance chair Jack Gibbons and a formal resolution to reject the permit application by the Town of Georgina that was the result of an emergency town council meeting held the night before the authority board meeting.

On March 22, town council unanimously voted in favour of a motion put forward by Ward 3 Counc. Dave Neeson asking the LSRCA to exercise its mandate to conserve and protect the environmentally significant land and decline the application for the MLE property located north of Deer Park Road.

Neeson, who has steadfastly opposed the MLE development in the wetland, its continued recognition in the town’s official plan and a proposed land swap transferring development approvals that was ultimately denied by the province earlier this year, said the permit would be “unacceptable” to him, his ward and the people of Georgina.

The LSRCA board, however, approved the permit, which is conditional on the transfer of DG Group lands on the south side of Deer Park Road originally slated for the development.

Roughly 300 acres of land will go to either the region or town as a mitigation measure for the environmental loss of about 178 acres of wetland as a result of the MLE development.

LSRCA board member and King Township councillor Avia Eek said she takes her role “very seriously” and “considers all information when making a decision” before ticking off a series of items raised in the staff report, including the conservation of land test required under the application being met through the transfer of lands and that, despite public perception, the conservation authority does not have the power to reverse development approvals under current planning legislation.

She called out the province for not supporting the originally proposed land swap supported by DG Group, the LSRCA, the town and region that “may not have been a perfect solution,” but would have saved the wetland.

“It is clear to me that the province, which has final jurisdiction, could have exercised better judgment on this particular matter,” she said, adding “this was the perfect opportunity to add this course to the Greenbelt outside the settlement area given that they had land authority to do so and they chose to walk away.”

Although Georgina Mayor Margaret Quirk and Regional Counc. Naomi Davision are LSRCA board members, they did not participate in either the discussion or the vote based on their position to decline the permit formalized at the March 22 town council meeting.

As a result of the LSRCA ruling, Georgina’s council will meet April 4 with legal counsel for a closed session to review all options at its disposal. That could include a town-initiated interim control bylaw that would temporarily halt development until the results of an OMB hearing, beginning May 22, or potential legal action and/or court injunction.

Gibbons criticized the LSRCA board for acting like “a deer in a developer’s headlights” handing over a significant wetland in exchange for agricultural lands already protected from development under Greenbelt legislation.

In deputations to both the town and the LSRCA board, Gibbons said both “must not allow themselves to be bullied by a large developer” and “must be willing to fight the DG Group in the courts to save our wetlands”.

When DG Group bought the land from the previous developer who went bankrupt over 30 years ago, it did so with the understanding that it was zoned for an approved development. It also paid more than $1.4 million toward installing water and sanitary systems, including the region’s water tower south of the property. In total, a combined $3.5 million was paid by the former and current owners to service the land.

Groups opposed to the development say a lot has changed — including environmental protections — since a 1987 Ontario Municipal Board ruling in favour of the development, backed by a 1988 Order in Council and plan of subdivision inked in 1992.

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