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Toronto Star: Government silence on York Region’s proposal to open up the Greenbelt is deafening

In Agriculture
Dec 17th, 2021
The lands that are part of the river valleys running south off the Oak Ridges Moraine are known as the “Greenbelt fingers,” Victor Doyle writes.  STEVE SOMERVILLE / METROLAND FILE PHOTO

From the Toronto Star, December 12, 2021
By Victor Doyle Toronto Star

York Region’s decision to open up 1,400 acres of Greenbelt in Markham and Vaughan for active parks, while setting the stage for various other uses, directly conflicts with the Greenbelt Plan, 2017.

These lands, part of the river valleys running south off the Oak Ridges Moraine, are known as the “Greenbelt fingers.” The “fingers” are integral components of the Greenbelt that were the subject of specific attention during its creation, to ensure “permanent protection of the natural heritage and water resource systems that sustain ecological and human health and that form the environmental framework around which major urbanization will be organized.”

They were robustly designed to help protect the ecological health of these rivers, given historic encroachment of development along river valleys to the south. Accordingly, virtually all of the fingers are identified as part of the Greenbelt Natural Heritage System, which is to be managed and restored in “a connected and integrated manner” to support natural systems in the broader region. It is therefore the fingers in their entirety, including their agricultural lands, which require protection — not just the wetlands, woodlands and watercourses.

The importance of the fingers was amplified in 2013 via the first major amendment to the Greenbelt Plan. This created a new designation called Urban River Valleys that provides elevated recognition and protection of the river valleys to the south, to “ecologically connect the Greenbelt to the Great Lakes.”

Shockingly, in reviewing York’s proposal, comments from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spoke only to high-level policies about parks, while remaining silent on the policies underpinning the fingers or the implications of changing the lands from Agriculture to Rural. Moreover, the comments were silent on the fact that both the Ontario Municipal Board and the courts rendered decisions in 2006 refusing to allow urban parks in the fingers, with both expressly citing and relying on the evidence of the ministry’s senior planner — a position shared by York and Richmond Hill, and a fact York Region staff made clear in their report.

The 2006 litigation decisions concluded that parks serving the adjacent urban areas are in fact integral parts of the urban fabric, and thus conflict with the Greenbelt’s overarching policy which prohibits settlement areas outside the Greenbelt to expand into it.

While the developer applicants stand to benefit from taking another run at this issue as it frees up more developable land, it is disingenuous, misleading and irresponsible for the ministry to be knowingly silent about the fingers — and for the minister’s only comment to be “we haven’t received the request and so will wait until it is forwarded.”

Clearly, the ministry should have fulsomely weighed in on York’s draft proposal to avoid the current situation. The letter points to political interference, given the ministry’s long-standing, professional position and actions on this issue, and is another example of the provincial not living up to its promises to protect the Greenbelt. Now that the minister has received York’s amendment, it is time to refuse it.

Victor Doyle is a professional planner who led the development of the Greenbelt Plan.

Read the article here

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