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Halton tightens reins on new growth
With a promise of law and order to protect the wide,
wide west, the region is sticking to its guns
to manage healthy, new urban development


Friday, September 29, 2000

MILTON, ONT. -- The billboard in a field on Toronto's western frontier boasts of manifest destiny.

"The wide, wide west is now wide, wide open," reads the developer's swaggering slogan for homes on broad lots soon to sprout on the farmland.

But not so fast, partner. Halton Region is supposed to have declared war on unfettered sprawl.

Toronto and its four regions face the need to accommodate as many as two million new residents within 20 years, and Halton has a tough new policy that it hopes will allow some growth in areas such as the one at the edge of Milton, while aggressively protecting farmland and green space.

"This is a community that will fight to manage growth," said David McCleary, policy analyst for the region that is laying down the law and planning to muster all the firepower it can to check the sprawl that threatens to eat up vast amounts of its ample farmland.

It won't take badges or bullets, but a tough adherence to a detailed plan, to keep the new development compact and to shield green lands and farms from rogue development, Mr. McCleary said.

But is that enough to keep order in the wild west?

The stark reality is that while the region has successfully avoided most of Toronto's sprawl to date, it will be a prime target for future population growth.

Developers are excited by the prospect that 200,000 more people are expected to move to the region in the next 20 years, raising Halton's population to more than 600,000. Large plots of the region's prime farmland are owned by companies ready to cover them with roads and ranch homes.

The change will be most pronounced in Milton, a community of 30,000 that has seen no growth for the past 20 years. It has just completed a new water main from Lake Ontario to replace well water, and its population is set to nearly double by 2021.

The region's official plan says that half of all future housing must come in the form of apartments and townhouses. New subdivisions being staked out must feature row housing and large-scale buildings, rather than all single-family, detached homes. Growth is also limited to expansion zones close to existing developments, and there will be no exceptions for developers who want to cross into lands zoned for farming.

The region's new strategy aims to strengthen the commercial centres of existing communities. Half of all new expansion is to happen within already developed areas, through building on unused land and replacing small or uneconomical buildings with larger residential property, Mr. McCleary said.

The results are already starting to appear.

In Oakville, apartments as tall as 14 storeys are now being built around the GO train station. Stores still line the main streets, but in some cases as many as six residential floors now rise above them. Attractive rows of English-style mews housing have filled gaps in residential neighbourhoods.

The most advanced example of Oakville's new look is the development south of Dundas Street near Trafalgar Road. Of the 4,600 homes in the development area, 925 of them are multiple-unit buildings.

The community is now involved in planning a new bus service along Dundas Street to connect to the GO commuter system.

The plan is good, but it doesn't seem to be strong enough to control sprawl and protect nature, said Bert Zonneveld, organizer of a citizens' group trying to save a 215-hectare ravine area in Halton Hills.

"It appears to us the developers still rule," Mr. Zonneveld said. "We see an awful lot of greenery disappearing every day and that scares us all."

The Hungry Hollow ravine includes the west branch of the Credit River and a significant wetland. Environmentalists argue that a corridor for wildlife and an important habitat for fish would be damaged by The McLaughlin Group's plan to build 591 homes that draw well water from the ravine.

Mr. Zonneveld said citizens had to take the lead when the proposal surfaced in 1998, because they didn't have support from either the municipality or the region. As they presented their case, they won support from the local Halton Hills council, and later from the region.

Mr. Zonneveld remains concerned that when the region rejected the development, "their terminology was it is premature, not that it is prohibited."

Sprawl can be insidious because the changes are initially promoted as good for the community, he said.

"Take roads: yes we need better roads, but once the road is widened, the developer can argue traffic is not bad now; let's blow out some more trees," Mr. Zonneveld said.

"People in the region feel hopeless and helpless" he said, because when developers are blocked by local or regional rules, they appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, where they seem to get their way.

The region's officials insist that all that is changing. Since the comprehensive plan was adopted in 1995, the region has won in a number of OMB appeals involving developers trying to stretch the rules.

That's a big change from the 1970s, when the region learned important lessons from blunders in sprawl control, Mr. McCleary said.

"The developers came in with their hired guns in the form of expert witnesses and lawyers. At that time we weren't prepared," Mr. McCleary said. Developers were able to dictate their terms and deflect any legal challenges.

For two decades, single-family houses reigned supreme and the number of people housed on a hectare of land in new developments continued to decline.

"We made a conscious decision. Rather than spread, we wanted to see growth adjacent to existing urban areas," said Patrick Murphy, Halton's chief planner.

Compact communities of high population density, known as nodes, were planned to make it possible to offer transit as an alternative to driving. Developers weren't ecstatic about being fenced in and they fought to continue building north from Oakville into farmland.

But the region decided to move where the province had failed, and established a green belt even wider than originally planned between Oakville and Milton, Mr. Murphy said.

While development has supposedly been banned permanently in the area from north of Highway 407 to Brittania Road, "keep in mind we have heard this before," said Mike Lansdown, director of OakvilleGreen Conservation Association.

The province proposed conserving a Parkway Belt of protected green space north of Oakville in the 1970s. "It was supposed to be protected in perpetuity but it got nibbled away and eaten up by development," Mr. Lansdown said.

His group fears that the same thing will happen with the new green belt.

OakvilleGreen is protesting the lack of requirements for protecting natural features such as forests and wildlife habitats near farmland and pasture that the region has designated as growth areas.

"As the plans have developed, we hear less and less about the environment," Mr. Lansdown said. "If all this green space is covered with homes, the whole ecosystem is going to come to a fuming halt."

Halton's plan was drafted in close consultation with the community, which is why it took 10 years and 100 public meetings to develop, Mr. Murphy said.

But the hundreds of scientific studies, rationales for the zoning and the iron-clad evidence helped the region develop a formidable store of data to fight OMB appeals by developers, he said.

Most recently, in August, an appeal by a developer to build on the Niagara Escarpment west of Milton was turned down by the OMB.

But some proposals still get around the rule. Another land owner on the escarpment, Central Milton Holdings Ltd., won a second appeal at the board and has a year to come up with a development plan for 62 hectares it owns.

Meanwhile, the Hungry Hollow ravine development in Halton Hills is still in prehearings before the OMB, where residents feel they have had little help from the region in their fight.

"Why does it take citizen watchdogs to do what the cities and regions should be doing?" Mr. Zonneveld said.

The result of Halton's long process is that developers are following a directive to "keep the new growth tight," Mr. McCleary said.

Construction and sales offices have started appearing on a designated new development area on the eastern fringe of Milton. The 20 developers dividing up the area will build up to 6,200 new homes.

But far from being a wide open land grab, the region's calculations show that some of the new developments will house more people per hectare than Toronto neighbourhoods such as Leaside and the Beaches, both of which are famed for combining excellent livability with high density.

Only time will tell whether such new communities are the answer to sprawl, said Mr. McCleary.Sometimes, 20 years can pass between the writing of an official plan and the completion of a development.

But he added that the region is determined to stick to its guns.

The hidden costs of suburban sprawl

Suburban sprawl is far more costly than anyone imagines, warns Toronto's pre-eminent urban theorist Jane Jacobs.

Home buyers are attracted to distant corners of suburbia because the price of new homes is often substantially lower than those closer to the centre of the city.

But suburban living might not seem to be a bargain if the hidden costs incurred by a few people -- but paid by everyone -- were added to the price.

"Beware, there are always side effects," said Ms. Jacobs, whose new book, The Nature of Economies, is making analysts rethink how important human potential is in economic growth.

All taxpayers are subsidizing sprawl to the collective tune of at least half-a-billion dollars a year, concluded the Greater Toronto Area Task Force headed by consultant Pamela Blais in 1995. The further utilities are extended and the busier the highways, the more expensive they are to build and maintain. But these costs are shared by everyone through utility rates and taxes.

The study recommended increasing charges that builders must pay to municipalities to include the true costs of installation and upkeep of services, schools and roads, which would raise house prices and dampen demand for suburban homes.

More difficult to tally are the costs of air pollution, deterioration of the environment and traffic chaos. Ms. Blais estimated the suburban sprawl is adding as much as $1-billion each year to the costs that have to be covered by taxpayers for health care and law enforcement.

But the cost of sprawl goes beyond money, Ms. Jacobs said at a recent seminar in Toronto. The loss of creativity and opportunities for future generations should also be considered.

For instance, society should consider what more creative things might be accomplished with the time and resources wasted by thousands of people daily during long commutes by car, Ms. Jacobs said.

She added the use of fuel should be considered a form of borrowing from the future and proposed that the long-term environmental damage and health problems caused by air pollution should be considered in making decisions on growth.

If the hidden costs were added to the price of suburban homes, it might put an effective brake on sprawl, concluded a study by Igor Voinovic, formerly at the University of Toronto and now at Texas A&M University.

Even temporary rises in interest rates or a prolonged rise in fuel prices, such as the current one that is infuriating drivers, can result in a drop in sales of suburban homes, Mr. Voinovic noted. Wallace Immen

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 to survive as a livable urban area.

Over the 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.
Wednesday: Durham -- small town, big plans.
Yesterday: Parallel universe in Peel.
Today: Halton's development showdown.
Tomorrow: Toronto opens for growth.

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