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York Region tries to get a grip on growth
The plans are for compact housing;
the question is who makes them stick


Tuesday, September 26, 2000

VAUGHAN, ONT. -- Prepare for a gut-wrenching rush as the roller coaster at Canada's Wonderland plunges down its track.

But for a real sense of speed, don't look down, look around.

New housing developments are spreading in all directions around the amusement park north of Toronto.

As soon as one sign advertising new homes appears along a farm road, a dozen competitors seem to spring up. In a few months, thousands of new residents will be joining the bumper-to-bumper conga lines of cars on roads more suitable to farm equipment than commuters.

But officials say that what looks like quintessential urban sprawl around Major Mackenzie Road and Highway 400 is part of a plan that will change the way people think about the suburbs.

This development area in the City of Vaughan is just one of many such nodes planned throughout York Region, north of Toronto, which for years has been one of Canada's fastest-growing areas.

York's vision of the future is communities that are compact and well defined, interlinked by roads and trails, where you can walk to shopping or take transit as an alternative to driving.

"There will be no more helter-skelter development," said John Waller, director of long-range planning for the Region of York.

The question is whether the vision can become reality.

Vision is crucial, as the Greater Toronto Area finds its long-term livability threatened. As many as 2.4 million more people are expected to settle in the City of Toronto and its surrounding regions over the next 20 years.

Planners say that accommodating that growth in subdivisions dependent on automobiles will gridlock roads, pollute the skies and drive up costs for everyone.

York Region's official plan draws boundaries for new growth that look as far as 30 years into the future, a vast improvement from the 1970s, when plans for subdivisions were taken up one at a time with no long-term plan, Mr. Waller said.

In the past 20 years, the region's population has exploded from 258,000 to more than 700,000, clustered in four big municipalities and several smaller ones. Expansion is expected for at least the next 25 years, when York region is projected to have 1.2 million inhabitants.

The arithmetic is frightening. If the newcomers all move into single-family homes on big lots, the kind now being built, an extra 166 square kilometres, an area larger than the Town of Richmond Hill, will be covered with houses, garages and driveways by 2025. That's not counting commercial buildings, roads and golf courses.

Seeing what has happened in the region already, some people are horrified by the prospect.

"They talk about having a balance between green space and development. But there's really no balance; roads and houses always seem to win," said Erin Shapero, acting director of the volunteer environmental-planning group Public Spaces. The group is concerned because new subdivisions and industrial sites are spreading over agricultural lands that until recently were thought to be off limits to development.

Planners insist there will be more balance in the future because of policies not only by the region but by its component communities to keep sprawl in its place and preserve green space.

The thousands of new homes around Canada's Wonderland are the first results of Vaughan's new "block plan" approach to growth, said Frank Miele, the city's commissioner of development services.

This area and two others are the only three in Vaughan designated for new subdivisions. The region and the city have agreed to oppose any development proposals outside those areas and discourage what is called estate housing, the subdivision of farms into large lots, Mr. Miele said.

The question, of course, is whether opposition is enough.

Vaughan's York Region neighbour, Richmond Hill, has had difficulty protecting its green space despite its official plan.

There, efforts to control the size of developments on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine have turned into a marathon legal tussle. Developers want to build as many as 30,000 homes in the northwest corner of the town, which is on the moraine, and have appealed to the provincially appointed Ontario Municipal Board, which has the authority to overrule any municipal decision.

Presentations by lawyers and experts before a two-man OMB hearing will go on at least until next spring and will cost the town and the region millions of dollars in legal fees.

"It's a death of a thousand cuts," said Glenn DeBaeremaeker, who is leading the environmental challenge on behalf of the group Save the Rouge Valley Coalition.

"Every developer is saying, 'My 100 hectares won't change anything.' But when you have 100 developers saying the same thing, it is a bleak picture."

Developers counter that the moraine is not a fragile environment and that the water and wildlife can easily co-exist with housing, thanks to technological fixes such as catchment areas for storm water.

Officials in the town of Richmond Hill decided not to zone the moraine for residential use, but they are beginning to have major questions about whether it is possible to accommodate the town's projected growth and protect the environment at the same time, said Janet Babcock, the town's chief planner.

The town estimates that to provide enough open space to protect moraine environment, as many as 500 hectares out of every 1,000 would need to be set aside as park or green corridor.

"We have some tough decisions to make, and not much time to make them," Mr. Waller said.

On average, homes being built in the region now are much more compact than they were in the 1970s. Townhouses and small lots with semi-detached homes make up a growing proportion of the housing mix.

The region has just approved guidelines for its component municipalities to follow in approving new development. Called the Greening of York Region Initiative, it suggests landscaping streets with native plants. It sets a goal of seeing 25 per cent of the region treed, up from about 18 per cent today. To achieve that, the province and municipalities are buying up woodlots and ravine spaces to preserve them.

The Greening Initiative to keep growth contained and protect open spaces is the result of a series of public symposiums that heard widespread complaints about steadily worsening traffic congestion, a declining environment and loss of green space.

The rules are still far from a perfect solution, Mr. Waller said. "We can tell developers, 'I'm sorry; that's the way it is,' but that doesn't always hold. We have to go to the OMB. We still have no way to prevent developers building on wide lots."

Developers will continue to resist building anything but homes because that is what they know how to build and homes sell quickly, said Richmond Hill Councillor Brenda Hogg. She has opposed development on the moraine, which is the largest undeveloped area remaining in the town.

Ms. Babcock said Richmond Hill is aware of the need to promote denser development, and a number of high-rise developments have been built along Yonge Street. But in most neighbourhoods with uniformly single-family homes, there is strong community resistance to high-density developments.

"I hear it all the time: 'I'm not opposed to growth; I just don't want to see it here,' " Ms. Babcock said.

But there are signs of change, said Mr. Miele, Vaughan's director of planning. The number of people housed per hectare is going up.

Many of the new homes being built are attached town homes, which can keep the population high enough to support local stores and transit.

Vaughan's new official plan is designed to confine all new development within high-population nodes connected by a grid of straight roads suitable for buses and convenient for residents to walk to the stops.

High-capacity dedicated bus lines are envisioned for major routes, such as Highway 7 and Highway 9 and Yonge Street. The buses would take passengers to stations of Toronto's subway system.

The visions won't become reality unless all the communities in the region work together, predicted Toronto Councillor David Shiner, who sits on the Greater Toronto Services Board. He said that unless ways are found to increase dramatically the number of people who live and work along major routes, transit can never relieve pressure on roads.

Mr. Shiner said the regions have a perfect opportunity in this era of housing demand to require developers to set aside areas for commuter parking and create the kind of high-density communities that promote transit use. Municipalities in York Region should be moving more aggressively, he said.

John MacKenzie, an environmental planner who is chairman of Public Spaces, said land-use designations in official plans have been used to justify development in stages rather than providing any real long-term limits to sprawl.

"Every farm and field is at risk," Mr. MacKenzie warned. "If they don't do something now, we will have houses and pavement everywhere from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe."

Nobody at the steering wheel

If you worry about suburban sprawl, you might ask who is minding the maps.

The answer is: everyone and no one.

Toronto and its regions have 17 separate municipalities independently making their own quirky rules and no one co-ordinating them, Ann Joyner of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute said.

Since 1995, the Ontario government has offloaded responsibility for planning to local municipalities, and for roads to the regions. The province no longer comments directly on local sprawl issues.

As a result, "There is no longer anyone in charge," Ms. Joyner said.

In the power vacuum, developers have become more likely to appeal any land-use regulations and get a sympathetic hearing from the Ontario Municipal Board, a body unique in Canada, which has the authority to overturn any municipal decision.

A study done this summer for the City of Toronto by Deloitte Consulting found that all areas of greater Toronto face a crisis in growth management, transportation, environment, economic development and social issues. It recommended that strategies for all those be co-ordinated by a GTA-wide agency.

"We have to develop a song sheet and have everyone singing from it," said Ms. Joyner, who was chairwoman of a committee to protect the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine. Whether the choirmaster is the Greater Toronto Services Board or a new agency or the province, "We have to be able to say no means no," she said.

The Greater Toronto Services Board, which the province set up in 1998 to co-ordinate regional transportation and to operate GO Transit, is made up of 42 mayors or heads of council from all the municipalities and the four regional governments in the GTA as well as Hamilton-Wentworth.

In its present form, without its own staff and means of generating revenue, the board can't be effective, Ajax Mayor Steve Parish said.

Mr. Parish said the role of the board must be put into legislation making it the sole co-ordinator of growth management and restricting the Ontario Municipal Board's powers to change decisions on transit, roads and sprawl issues.

But the province already has those powers and it should stop refusing to take responsibility, said John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor who recommended tough limits on sprawl in a study done for the New Democratic Party government that preceded Ontario's present Conservative one. The new government shelved those recommendations.

"Sprawl is bad everywhere, not only around Toronto. Why create a new structure when the province is an agency that already has the power to control sprawl?" Mr. Sewell asked.

The series

Can anything be done to stop sprawl in the Toronto area from becoming even more disfiguring and uncontrollable, steadily driving down the quality of life in the city?

The Globe and Mail asked planners, environmentalists and urban thinkers whether we are learning from our past mistakes quickly enough to survive as a livable urban area.

Over the next week, a series of stories will focus on flash points in the city and its regions, where officials are trying innovative approaches to grow in a smarter way in the future.
Today: York's green strategy.
Wednesday: Durham -- small town, big plans.
Thursday: Parellel universe in Peel.
Friday: Halton's development showdown.
Saturday: Toronto opens for growth.

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