Uxbridge project seen as test case
Durham's official plan said no. So did
a lot of people. That doesn't matter.
Wednesday, September 27, 2000
TORONTO -- Joey Tanenbaum likes to remember the day he first took his daughter to the wooded estate he bought in farm country northeast of Toronto.
"She said, 'Oh, this looks just like the Garden of Eden.' " The developer chose to call the land Gan Eden, the Hebrew name for the quintessential paradise.
There's no question that the forested Gan Eden could be a heavenly place to live. But after Mr. Tanenbaum's company, Jay-M Holdings Ltd., announced plans to fill his garden with as many as 7,000 new residents, neighbours in the idyllic small town down the road saw the proposal for an "adult-lifestyle development" as a threat.
"This is the perfect example of urban sprawl," says Wynn Walters, co-ordinator of the Citizens' Alliance of Uxbridge, which along with the Uxbridge Conservation Association is opposing Gan Eden and another development proposed to the south of it in hearings before the Ontario Municipal Board.
Their fight could indicate whether anyone can set limits on growth in or around Toronto and make them stick.
Mr. Tanenbaum said his company's research shows the project will fill a pent-up demand for new housing in the fast-growing Region of Durham, east of Toronto.
Toronto and its four neighbouring regions are grappling with the issue of how to control the spread of housing across forests and farmlands while creating homes for the roughly two million more people expected to settle in the area over the next 20 years.
In 10 years, the region's population has increased from about 100,000 to 500,000. Officials expect to have to find space for 900,000 more in each of the next two decades.
But environmentalists and regional officials calculate that there is more than enough space in the towns of Ajax, Pickering, Oshawa, Whitby and Clarington to handle the expected growth.
The region's official plan limits subdivisions to these southern communities along Lake Ontario. The plan aims to keep growth concentrated enough that local east-west transit links and expanded GO Train service to Toronto will provide a convenient alternative to gridlocked traffic on roads such as Highway 401.
Gan Eden is 20 kilometres north of the nearest suburban development in the region. The developer calls it an expansion of Uxbridge.
Mayor Geri-Lynn O'Connor says it took Uxbridge 150 years to expand to its current population of 6,500. Gan Eden and another housing development proposed to the south of it would more than double that.
Protest groups and private citizens have jammed halls for Uxbridge community meetings. With an election coming up, the citizens groups are lobbying politicians against the plan, Mr. Walters said.
"We're not arguing what they do there won't be good. We're arguing that it is not appropriate," said Mr. Walters, who is himself a newcomer and lives in a new home at the edge of Uxbridge.
Ms. O'Connor said: "We have a plan to grow from the centre out. We didn't want to leapfrog."
She grew up in the town, the centre of a rural district of specialty farms and stables and environmentally sensitive natural areas.
She is afraid that Uxbridge will go the way of many other towns if development goes ahead: that the logical new shopping area would be a roadside strip with doughnut shops and car dealers surrounded by vast parking lots, and that life will leak out of the old downtown with its main street of century-old brick shops.
More important, keeping housing concentrated could allow expansion of GO Train services along the lake, a fast alternative to the drive along Highway 401 to Toronto, which can take more than an hour in rush hour.
"Why should we create a bedroom community far from jobs? It's frustrating, because no one wants to answer questions like this," said Brian Buckles of the Uxbridge Conservation Association, which is fighting the expansion at the OMB alongside the Citizens' Alliance.
Studies done by Mr. Buckles for the region show that only 25 per cent of the town's residents have jobs there. Fewer than half of the people in Uxbridge have jobs in Durham Region at all. The vast majority commute west to York Region and the City of Toronto and spend an average 45 minutes travelling in each direction.
Mr. Buckles estimates that each of Gan Eden's residents would need to take one or two car trips per day, adding four million trips on the local roads each year.
"This will be a test case for just how far developers can push the envelope," said Ian Attridge, a lawyer for the two citizens groups now fighting the plan before the Ontario Municipal Board. Not only is the development big; it is on a part of the porous Oak Ridges Moraine that plays a large role in cleansing the ground water of the region.
A geologist for the developer contended that the plan for the housing would leave plenty of room for water to get into the ground, but Uxbridge Council is concerned about the amount of water the development would extract.
A project this big would require a pipeline to bring water from Lake Ontario and a new sewer line.
Durham's regional councillors turned down the proposal because it doesn't fit into what they feel is a well-crafted plan to promote growth and minimize sprawl.
"We have firm urban boundaries, and we have been able to enforce growth to these areas," said Jim Blair, director of the region's planning department.
Durham is revising its official plan to firm up its goals of keeping growth compact and protecting rural areas and historic downtowns, he said.
"Once you put in a big pipe it will throw out the goals and the rules," Mr. Walters said. "It is too big an investment not to use. It would open up the area for development all along the pipe."
Mr. Walters said that jumping quickly from a small community to a larger one has all sorts of social and financial costs that aren't even being factored in.
Gan Eden is designed as an adult community: There are no plans for sidewalks, schools, playgrounds or services for children. "But the homes are large enough for couples with children, and who is going to say they can't buy?" Mr. Walters said.
Services such as the recreation centre and pool in Uxbridge would have to be enlarged. The fire department would have to be upgraded from a volunteer operation to a professional one. Those changes alone could eat up all the money the town would get in development fees from Gan Eden, Mr. Walters has calculated.
Ms. O'Connor said townspeople have been very vocal and she is sure "at least 95 per cent of the residents are against it."
But the Gan Eden question and the other estate proposals for nearby Coppin's Corners will be decided in hearings before the Ontario Municipal Board, a provincially selected appeal body that Ms. O'Connor said stacks the deck in favour of sprawl.
Mayor O'Connor said the town tried to negotiate a compromise. A plan for 150 homes or even 750 might fit with the community's character, but Gan Eden is being presented as all or nothing. It would have about 2,500 houses.
The issue is already going through a series of pre-hearings that will lead to a full OMB hearing early next year. Lawyers for the town say that the process will cost Uxbridge at least $1-million in legal fees no matter what the outcome.
The citizens group says there is much more at stake than money.
"If we lose, all hell's going to break here and no place in Ontario is safe from sprawl," Mr. Walters said.
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.
Monday: Paradise or parking lot?
Tuesday: York's green strategy.
Today: Durham -- small town, big plans.
Thursday: Parallel universe in Peel.
Friday: Halton's development showdown.
Saturday: Toronto opens for growth.
Join the debate on urban sprawl at globeandmail.com.