The Ford government has made a mess of planning. Now, municipal governments have a chance to correct some of that.

Our open letter on the reversal announced by this government to changes made to municipal official plans, outlining our concerns with a lack of accountability and transparency in how the Minister is proceeding.

The Greenbelt scandal is a symptom of a larger problem, of a trend towards a lack of accountability in democratic decision making.

Anyone who follows the news in Ontario will know that this government has been forced into a humiliating retreat in its attempt to give land from the Greenbelt to a select group of well-connected developers.

Screenshot of CBC's coverage of Ontario Premier Doug Ford announcing the reversal to Greenbelt land take-outs. Credit CBC.

This screenshot is from CBC’s coverage of Premier Ford’s announcement of the reversal of the Greenbelt land take-outs.

As you read through the rest of this piece, consider the theatre of this image, with the many MPPs arrayed behind the Premier, and the difference between that nod to collective accountability and the private message from the new Minister to mayors.

See more of CBC’s coverage here.

What is less well known is that another major policy reversal, with many parallels to the Greenbelt scandal, is currently underway, too. For many, this second reversal may be even more impactful than that which deals with the Greenbelt.

At around the same time that Greenbelt lands were being carved up, municipalities across Ontario were sending their Official Plan to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing for approval.

Official Plans are the result of years of hard work. Town halls were held and public engagement portals established so that residents could be involved in the process, providing input into how their communities would be shaped over the coming years. Municipal staff, mayors, and councillors worked to incorporate this feedback, representing a dialogue between local government and citizens, into the plans, such that they reflected the priorities of communities they represent. And, finally, these plans were debated and passed by municipal councils, elected by and accountable to their constituents.

The process in Ontario is for these plans, passed by municipalities, to then be sent on to the Ministry for approval. This is in large part due to the role that the provincial government is meant to play in overseeing and coordinating regional planning. So, accordingly, plans were sent to the Ministry. Within short order, however, many of these plans were returned with lines crossed out, words replaced, and whole paragraphs added.

Official Plans Changed Unilaterally

In Hamilton, the Official Plan was changed so that thousands of hectares of farmland meant to remain off limits to development was, instead, opened up for development. (Ryan Amato, Chief of Staff to Minister Clarke and who was central to the Greenbelt scandal, was also involved with this decision.)

Closer to home, Barrie’s Official Plan was edited to water down requirements for affordable housing and increased density, among many other changes that developers wanted but hadn’t been included.

Often the changes made by the Ministry closely follow language used in requests for changes to the plan that were made by third parties, namely developers or their representatives.

Again, well connected developers had what seemed like a preferential connection to the Minister’s office that, in effect, placed their interests above that of the public. The result was the overriding of the processes of public engagement that helped to shape the Official Plans passed by municipalities. Voices of community members, as a consequence, were ignored and shut out.

This is a view of community ownership that sees it as belonging to developers, rather than those who live and work there.

Retreat, or Attempt to Do An End-Run

The retreat from these changes are likely an attempt to stem the deluge of negative responses to the government’s misleading of the public, to their preferential treatment of some of the province’s wealthiest individuals, and to their disregard for due processes and democratic accountability.

On the Ministry’s website, the announcement of the reversal states that they would “wind back provincial changes to official plans and official plan amendments”. In the statement there are two specific exceptions, namely, “in circumstances where construction has begun” or “where doing so would contravene existing provincial legislation and regulation”.

That’s what the Minister is telling the public.

What he’s telling mayors, privately, is very different.

The End-Run

In an email to mayors, recently leaked to Environment Defence, the Minister makes assurances that the province will accept, “changes that the municipality would like to see made to the official plan, based on the modifications that the province had previously made, and which you [the Mayor] support.” (Emphasis added.)

A clipping of the letter, which was leaked to Environmental Defence, that Minister Calandra sent privately to mayors, in which he indicates they may make unilateral changes to Official Plans.

Find the whole letter on Environmental Defence’s website, here.

As with the Greenbelt scandal, decision making authority is being removed from the processes previously established.

Public input and engagement is left out, due and deliberate process is left out, incorporating the expertise of staff is left out. Those with access to mayors, whether inside or outside of established channels, have the advantage.

The informality of this is exactly what characterised the process, or lack thereof, that led to the Greenbelt land take-outs – trips by MPPs and staff together with developers to Las Vegas, invitations to family weddings where manilla envelopes with instructions on which land parcels should be removed from the Greenbelt were passed between developers and members of the government, government members using personal phones and email for correspondence, which makes it difficult for records of communications to be obtained.

Why Due Process is Important, and Conclusion

It seems strange to have to say this, but necessary given the repeated actions of this government – due processes exist for a reason, which is that they are transparent, accountable, and as such provide outcomes that benefit all of society, not just a select few.

The Ministry has it right with its public statement – Official Plans should be reinstated as they were passed by municipal councils.

The Minister, however, does not have it right with his private message to mayors. Even with so-called “strong mayor” powers, mayors do not have the mandate to unilaterally change an Official Plan.

To that end, we are heartened that some mayors of affected communities, including Barrie’s, seem to have come out in favour of fully reinstating the Official Plan as it was developed through the established process.

This is important, we believe, to underline democratic principles of due process, including public participation and accountability.

It is also important as it reaffirms the mandate linked to the passage of the Official Plan, which was that of the previous council. Substantial changes to work done by past councils, or any other government for that matter, without using established processes, is an extremely problematic precedent to set.

We recognize that as time passes changes may be necessary, but this must be done using the processes in place. The Official Plan is updated every 5 years, and processes such as secondary plans can address changes outside of that timeframe. These processes include council, public engagement mechanisms, and ensure that any changes made remain accountable to the public.

Official Plans are among the most important components of planning and building our communities, the places where we live, play, and work. They deserve to be given the highest level of consideration, which includes the best possible process of deliberation.

Adam Ballah

Adam has worked with SCGC since, almost, its conception. He holds a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University, and is deeply interested (and concerned) with intersections between risk, vulnerability, and security when it comes to climate impacts.

The View From Inside: Make it make sense

Let’s continue this conversation and demystify the planning process to make it make sense for the climate justice movement.

Look, I understand the problems with development, urban sprawl, and digging up wetlands. I know how these contribute to climate change and make us more vulnerable to the impacts of it. I understand the changes we need to make to prepare for worsening climate chaos. I’m sure you do too.

Finding out about individual projects in my county, city, neighbourhood, is a whole different matter. For one, you need to know the actual name of the development or project to look for info about it. I’ve been paying attention to Barrie’s Official Plan – I read through the draft, I provided some feedback via the website. I know the Plan wasn’t enough, but I found I could only understand this in general terms – I couldn’t address the specifics of planning, the specifics of what exactly needed to be pushed for.

We know we must pressure provincial and local governments for bold climate action (we say ‘bold’, but we really just mean ‘adequate’, which means very bold for the status quo). We can name things like better public transit, investing in renewable energies and retrofitting buildings, naturalizing our parks, etc. But it’s hard to figure out what’s happening inside the process to actually make these things happen (or not happen).

"I knew development hurts ecosystems and drives climate change (literally drives it, in cars), but it just seems so ubiquitous – how do we stop corporations and councils from developing land when it’s so hard to get clear information about specific projects?"

Understanding how the local planning process works is crucial in the fight for climate action.

But here’s the thing – there’s so much about planning that isn’t so readily shared. I’ve been realizing that there’s so much more going on. I’ve found out about so many development projects, many right here in Barrie. See, I knew development hurts ecosystems and drives climate change (literally drives it, in cars), but it just seems so ubiquitous – how do we stop corporations and councils from developing land when it’s so hard to get clear information about specific projects?

Okay, so you see construction for a development project. You know it’s probably for-profit and won’t come close to meeting any climate standards. What do you do? Stopping projects once they’re started is hard, especially when our entire system is built to do everything for profit, no matter the real cost. This is why putting on the pressure during planning is so important.

These projects get sorted and contracts get signed long before the Earth gets dug and construction signs go up. This part is not so visible to the public. Sure, the councils must make some of this publicly available, but you really have to know what to look for and understand what the technical reports, bylaws and zoning stuff mean to do anything.

It’s like they make planning as uninteresting and seemingly inconsequential as possible so that people don’t actually get involved. A citizenry that’s not informed can’t participate very well.

Community supported, advocacy for a safe and secure future.

Governments have failed to act to protect our communities and the futures of our children and grandchildren, and they continue to treat our environment as if it’s incidental to life, rather than a foundation for it.

We need strong community organizations to fight for our future, now more than ever.

Please consider donating to support our work. It’s people like you who make us possible.

"...if I’m not a planner, why should I care? Turns out, the MCR is a big review of Simcoe County’s planning until 2051. It will determine how the County will plan and develop for the next few decades."

An example – the MCR, or Municipal Comprehensive Review. I hadn’t really heard much about it until recently and information on it is vague and bureaucratic. Cool, so if I’m not a planner, why should I care? Turns out, the MCR is a big review of Simcoe County’s planning until 2051. It will determine how the County will plan and develop for the next few decades.

AKA, it will determine whether or not Simcoe County meets the 2030 and 2050 climate targets.

Reduce emissions
50% by 2030

Reduce emissions
to zero by 2050

That’s a simplification to be sure, and only one implication of the MCR, but that’s a pretty big deal that people should know about. How did I not hear about this sooner?

And there’s other examples: MZOs (or Municipal Zoning Orders) basically let the province override local rules to push through development projects without the public consultation or environmental assessment parts of planning – two of the main parts of the planning process. The Ontario government has ordered a lot of these for private developers here in Simcoe County, and some are going to cut into local wetlands and other habitats that should have been protected.

Planning for climate change means planning within an ‘settlement boundary’, which is a limited amount of space that can be used to build new buildings and roads. This stops urban sprawl and the creation of new subdivisions or commercial areas that require more roads and cars to get to, and protects the land that we have left from being dug up for development.

Many current development projects aim to change the ‘zoning’ or categorization of land from ‘farming’ or ‘environmentally protected’ to ‘industrial’ so that it’s allowed to be developed. This means that we’re losing ecosystems and farmland that we need to protect to make our communities resilient to climate change and avoid flooding and food shortages.

My point is that learning about how planning works is important because it helps us get climate justice happening on the local level. It helps us understand how these changes can actually play out through local government.

"...learning about how planning works is important because it helps us get climate justice happening on the local level"

But there’s a lot to learn and not a lot of clear information, so how can we learn more?

  • Well, doing some quick research is a start – look for local groups that have campaigns about local development issues (like the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Environmental Youth Alliance). 
  • Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition is working to become a good resource that translates the planning process into clear and simple terms for youth and the public (check out our Issues Map to see some of the current development projects happening in your community and how to get involved). 
  • Talk to your friends and others you know about how the planning process today determines a lot about your lives and the lives of future generations. 
  • Talk to classmates and teachers – is there a local issue that you can learn about as a class and turn into an action project? (hint: city planning can connect to all subjects in the curriculum, no matter what grade you’re in!).

Let’s continue this conversation and demystify the planning process to make it make sense for the climate justice movement.

Kelly, signing off. 

P.S – I think of these blog posts as an ongoing discussion. You can share your comments below, on social media (links below!) or get in touch with me at kelly@simcoecountygreenbelt.ca.

Picture of Kelly Gingrich

Kelly Gingrich

SCGC Youth Engagement Lead

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Contact Kelly using the email provided above.
  2. Follow us on social media using the icons below.
  3. Sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page to stay informed on developments with growing the Greenbelt and limiting sprawl.

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The New Growth Plan Puts Sprawl Over All

We can no longer treat land use as its own issue, nor can we always assume that growth is always a net benefit to our communities. This is simply not true. We can grow our communities in ways that provide affordable housing, protect our natural spaces and water and aspire to create healthy, vibrant centres where people can live and work.

The Ford government is rolling back progress on building healthier communities.

How Did We Get Here?

The transition from 1950s sprawl development to smart growth policies as a provincial concern was really solidified by Premier Mike Harris. 

Yes, that Mike Harris. 

Despite his first term, which gave municipalities more freedom to grow as they wish, by the second term key grassroots movements to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine demonstrated to the public how sprawling growth patterns were hurting our water, our land and our health. 

In response, the Harris government decided to get sprawling growth patterns under control and set up a series of Smart Growth Panels across Ontario. 

That was in 2002.

Central Zone Smart Growth Area map.
Central Zone Smart Growth Area map.

The Central Zone panel, which included Simcoe County region, concluded early on in its mandate that the status quo sprawl and growth at all costs mentality would lead to dire consequences for the region by 2035 including: commuting trips that would take 45 percent longer, mostly due to congestion; a marked deterioration in air quality; worsening delays in the movement of goods; and higher taxes.1Neptis: Smart Growth and Places to Grow

Complete Communities Connected by Public Transit

The panel sketched out a concept of how growth in this area should go to avoid those outcomes – its vision relied heavily on compact, complete communities connected by public transit: TTC rail, GO rail, bus rapid transit, and inter-city and inter-regional rapid transit. There were also delineated areas for protected natural zones and an awareness of agricultural lands that were under increasing pressure from growth. 

When the Liberals came into power in 2003, they used a lot of the concepts from the Smart Growth Panels to form Ontario’s first Growth Plan. The award-winning Growth Plan directed growth to form complete communities and stop sprawl.

Ontario's Growth Plans, through the years.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan 2020

Growth Plan (2020)

This is the most recent version of the Growth Plan, revised by Doug Ford’s government, which contains many of the problems pointed out in this post.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan (2017)

Growth Plan (2017)

The plan as it was under the previous Liberal government.

Cover of Ontario's Growth Plan (2006)

Ontario's Growth Plan (2006)

The original the Growth Plan, titled “Better Choices, Better Future.”

Unfortunately, these efforts were short lived.

A series of amendments and regulations watered down the objectives over the years, but at its core it still aspired to keep sprawl in check through limiting growth in rural areas, ensuring large developments were on municipal services, promotion of public transit, climate change considerations and rigorous criteria in order to expand settlement areas.

So why the history lesson on planning? 

Well it’s important to note that governments, over previous decades, have been trying to avoid the situation the province is now promoting, which is sprawling subdivisions, and with a very little strategy to deal with climate impacts, water impacts, and loss of farmland and biodiversity that come with it.

What is Happening Now?

It’s not hyperbole to say that the changes  made recently by the province with respect to growth and planning take us back to the 1990s. Some of the problematic changes include:

  • Density targets for our region have been scaled back tremendously.

This calculation outlines how efficiently we use land to house people and places of employment.   

  • The limits that were put on growth, previously known as population allocations, are now set as a minimum target, not as a maximum as they were before.
  • Formerly, settlement areas could only be expanded during the Official Plan (OP) process, so long as evidence is presented to demonstrate need. Now  they can be expanded up to 40 hectares outside of the OP period.
  • New developments no longer need to prioritize being serviced by municipal water or wastewater – septics and communal septics are now allowed more easily.

This enables development to get into more natural, rural areas, and puts water quality at risk.

  • Calculations to determine how much land must be set aside for new growth outside of built upon land have changed too.

The municipality must now plan for growth to 2051. This means that in the middle of a pandemic with no knowledge of how work/commute/travel patterns will change, municipalities must decide by June, 2022, how much new land to give up to development.

It also means that due to COVID restrictions this Municipal Comprehensive (MCR) process, that requires public consultations, is limited to online interactions. That’s why many communities are asking their local government to delay these decisions until people can properly consult with staff and neighbours.

  • Municipalities are now forced to calculate how much land based on market needs.

Simply put, there are two ways to calculate this – looking to see what you will need in the future based on changing demographics, what you already have planned, and anticipated need (e.g. more rentals/apartments/seniors residences etc.)…

OR

…you can look back to what has historically been provided by the market (e.g. detached homes, McMansions) and then just extrapolate that forward. 

The current government chose the second option.

This means that in places like Simcoe County where large homes dominate housing stock, we can expect more of that despite more people requiring smaller units and apartments (seniors downsizing, youth, low income).

This also means that more of our green spaces and farmland will be sacrificed to provide for McMansions and sprawl, while people who need housing types that are more affordable (laneway homes, stacked townhomes, apartments) will be mostly ignored.

Photo of "McMansions". Credit: Brett VA - CC BY 2.0.
Photo of "McMansions". Credit: Brett VA - CC BY 2.0.

Why Is It A Concern?

In all of this we need to understand one simple truth – how we grow and where we grow has a massive impact on climate change, water health, biodiversity and our health consequently. 

Growth patterns lock in centuries of impacts and GHG emissions. We can no longer treat land use as its own issue, nor can we always assume that growth is always a net benefit to our communities.

This is simply not true. We can grow our communities in ways that provide affordable housing, protect our natural spaces and water and aspire to create healthy, vibrant centres where people can live and work.

Or, we can grow our communities in ways that use 1950s thinking to deal with 21st century challenges – which will lead to more sprawl, more highways and less public oversight.

One path chooses the needs of the people and our natural communities, the other helps line the pockets of speculative developers at the community’s expense. 

Unfortunately, the province’s policies are 60 years behind the evidence and science, and our communities, now and in the future, will be worse for it.

How Can You Get Involved?

  1. Push back against mega-projects, such as the Bradford ByPass, The Orbit, and the Upper York Sewage Solution.
  2. Share your concerns on social media.
  3. Sign up to our newsletter to stay informed on developments with growing the Greenbelt and limiting sprawl.

Links to Further Reading

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Friends. Online censorship by unaccountable tech companies, combined with an all-out assault on the Greenbelt by Ontario’s developers/government, make this a perilous time for the future of democracy and the power of the people in Ontario.

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