Bill 66 offered ‘instantaneous equity’ for speculators
Retired provincial planner Victor Doyle speaks in Guelph. -AWARE Simcoe photo
Land-use planning may have a 25-year horizon, but ‘when we pave the landscape, that’s forever’
By Kate Harries AWARE News Network
The focus of a meeting to stop Bill 66 changed – given the withdrawal of the land-use-oriented Schedule 10 – into an examination of the motivation for the Ford government’s attempts to facilitate urbanization in Ontario.
“Bay Street and the big banks and the pension funds are driving a lot of this,” former provincial planner Victor Doyle told around 100 people gathered at the Guelph Arboretum on February 2 2019.
Major investors have a great interest in the conversion of farmland to urban purposes because the value of that land goes up overnight, Doyle said.
“The minute the minister (of municipal affairs) signs the line that says it’s now urban, the value skyrockets and this is instantaneous equity that goes onto the books of the banks and pension funds.”
Even the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board is among those putting money into land development companies. CPP’s $200 million stake in Walton International, that sought bankruptcy protection in 2017, is bad enough, he noted, “but worse, we have the federal government linking our pension plan to a form of development that we know is unsustainable environmentally and economically.”
Doyle is known for winning a grievance against the Ontario government after having been demoted in 2017 by the Wynne Liberals for publicly challenging building industry claims that the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan were driving up house prices and cutting off the supply of desirable low-density housing in the suburbs.
Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner noted that only 20 per cent of land slated for development in the ‘White Belt’ surrounding the GTA has actually been developed.
But there are many speculators who have purchased rural land in the hope of achieving the instantaneous equity that comes if a local municipal council agrees to convert it to urban use and the change is approved by the minister.
“The challenge is that if you’d speculated on land outside of those areas slated for development, you’re not able to cash in,” Schreiner said. “So a big part of what’s driving the pressure is not planning or accommodating growth or anything like that, but is actually land speculators cashing in on the asset value of the land they’ve speculated in.”
The meeting was organized by NDACT (North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce, known for its 2012 defeat of a Boston hedge fund’s plans for a limestone mega-quarry in the fertile farmland 100 km northwest of Toronto).
Schreiner said he is the only provincial party leader to have signed NDACT’s Food & Water First pledge.
“I continue to challenge this government that I think that their bad environmental policies are bad economic policies,” he said. “I would say all this ‘open for business’ b.s. is actually going to be bad for business if we allow the government to head down this path.”
Protecting farmland may benefit the environment, but it also makes economic sense, Schreiner said. The agri-food sector employs 822,000 people and generates $40 billion a year in gross domestic product.
“Why would any government, particularly a government that is pro-business, want to pave over this asset base?” he asked. Schreiner said he favours cutting red tape, citing an example recently shown to him of a form that in British Columbia takes up one page, and in Ontario amounts to eight pages for the same application.
But as for regulations that safeguard children, reduce exposure to toxic substances or protect water or other resources, “I wouldn’t consider that red tape,” he said.
Schreiner added that the mega-quarry victory and the Food & Water First campaign demonstrate that Canadians care about food security. “A country that cannot feed itself is just as insecure as a country that cannot defend itself,” he said.
Doyle cited other ways in which sprawl makes no sense, quite apart from the impact of the loss of food land and the loss of environmental services provided by forests and wetlands.
There’s an economic toll to gridlock, air pollution, health problems and infrastructure challenges. “There’s not enough money to pay for continued low-density sprawl,” he said, noting how municipalities are continually seeking infrastructure funding from higher levels of government.
Doyle took the meeting through a history of the past 50 years of bi-partisan land-use management in Ontario. The practice has been to plan for a 25 to 50-year horizon, he said.
“But when we pave the landscape, that’s forever,” he said. “It’s not a 25 year plan, that’s a permanent plan. We can change taxes, and healthcare and the sex-ed curriculum, but we can’t turn back on when we’ve paved the landscape.”
He showed a series of maps that demonstrated how aquifers are under stress, the quality of surface water that feeds rivers and lakes is deteriorating, and agricultural land is disappearing.
One such map had provincial policy makers scratching their heads, he said. It shows more agricultural land per person is being lost in the outer ring beyond the Greenbelt, places like Simcoe, Dufferin, Waterloo and Kawartha – even though provincial policy is to focus 75 per cent of growth within the GTA.
This has happened despite efforts to protect rural Ontario from the pressures of growth, he said, and that’s a problem. “We’re almost replicating or making worse that which we tried to address with these plans beginning almost 50 years ago.”
One of those present asked whether consideration was given to the leapfrog effect when the Greenbelt was implemented. “I’m thinking of Midhurst,” she said. “How did that happen?”
Doyle replied that provincial planners wanted to do the Greenbelt for the whole region, “which made sense, because the Growth Plan was covering the whole region and we’d be able to look at agricultural and water resources in what’s called the outer ring.”
The Wynne government refused, and made a conscious decision not to allow their planners to look beyond the GTA, he said. “My perspective on that is that development interests in Simcoe and Brant and a few other places convinced the government not to look outside the GTA because that would interfere with their plans for urban development in the other regions.”
One of Doyle’s maps showed how major corporations are assembling thousands of acres of farmland, presently designated rural, in the hope that in the future they will be able to urbanize it.
One example was of Walton International Group’s holdings of 5,000 to 6,000 acres of land around Brantford, another of Salem Landowners Group which has 1,000 to 2,000 acres south of Barrie between Highways 27 and 400.
“It’s all beautiful farmland,” he said. “There’s not a lot of options. If we’re going to continue to expand, we’re expanding onto some of the best farmland in Canada, recognizing we’ve already paved over a huge amount. It’s not sustainable, we need to stop doing that.”