The Toronto Star
NEWS, Wednesday, August 15, 2001, p. A01

Plan puts the brakes on new housing on Oak Ridges Moraine
Building across much of region would be banned

Caroline Mallan

The Star's view, A22

A draft plan would limit housing developments to about 9 per cent of the Oak Ridges Moraine, allowing up to 26,000 new homes in subdivisions over the next two decades.

But the plan proposes allowing other, less intense developments in the environmentally sensitive area, including rural residences, golf courses, playing fields, ski hills and other commercial and industrial uses.

Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson said the plan submitted to the province by an advisory panel and released yesterday would protect virtually all key areas of environmental concern.

Environmentalists had cautious words of praise, calling it a good first step, but they cautioned there is still more to be done to protect the160-kilometre-long ridge of rolling hills and rural landscapes.

"No new settlement areas are being proposed by the advisory panel," Hodgson said as he released details of the proposed plan in Richmond Hill yesterday.

The minister added that the draft will be subjected to public open houses in coming weeks followed by provincial legislation.

Hodgson said that under the proposal, new subdivisions will only be permitted in areas that are already designated for settlement by the various official plans of the municipalities involved, including Markham, Richmond Hill and Uxbridge.

The moraine, covering 195,000 hectares stretching from the Trent River on the east to the Niagara Escarpment on the west, contains headwaters of several rivers and provides drinking water to about 200,000 people in York Region.

The advisory panel's report divides the moraine into four different designated areas, which include:

Natural core areas. These sections, amounting to 37 per cent of the moraine, are the most protected, permitting only existing uses such as hiking trails and some agriculture.

Natural linkage areas. These include woodlots and wetlands that connect natural core areas with one another, as well as river valleys north and south of the moraine. But unlike the more protected core areas, these areas, comprising 16 per cent of the moraine, would allow expansion of so-called "aggregate mining"- sand and gravel pits.

Countryside areas. This section, 38 per cent of the total area, includes rural areas where rural residences, golf courses, playing fields, ski hills and other commercial and industrial uses would be permitted, pending environmental assessment.

Urban settlement areas. These are sections where new housing developments would be allowed to continue, complete with amenities such as sewer and water construction. The panel estimates that 9 per cent of the moraine would be designated for settlement, housing an estimated 80,000 people in 26,000 homes over the next 20 years.

In May, the Conservative government froze all development on the moraine for six months in order to buy some time to come up with a land-use plan.

Since then, the province has granted exemptions to the ban for more than 4,250 new homes that were considered to be too far along in the planning process to halt.

The approved subdivisions are roughly along the Yonge St. corridor south of Stouffville.

The 13-member advisory panel includes representatives from the development industry and business as well as environmentalists, academics and regional chairs.

Hodgson also announced yesterday that former Toronto mayor David Crombie will act as mediator to settle outstanding development disputes between the town of Richmond Hill and various developers who have taken their plans to build to the Ontario Municipal Board.

The appointment of an independent mediator was among the panel's recommendations.

While environmentalists said the plan was a good beginning, they still worried it still allows some level of development on more than half the moraine area.

"It's got some big picture eco-system ideas that are good," said Gregor Beck of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.

But he added the provision to allow rural residences opens the potentially dangerous door to estate housing developments that cater to the rich.

Josh Matlow of Earthroots also called the draft plan a sound first step, but said he is concerned about the allowance for expansion of sand and gravel pits.

"This is a good first step, but it's only a start," he said. "They've got to protect the entirety of the Oak Ridges Moraine."

Matlow also warned that a loophole in the draft plan might allow municipalities to appeal directly to the minister for exceptions to the strict building restrictions.

Rules in place for areas that are deemed protected must be airtight to prevent local governments from working around them, he said.

MPP Mike Colle (Eglinton-Lawrence) said the decision to hold a series of open houses or information sessions instead of full public hearings will not give area residents the amount of input they deserve.

He echoed Beck's concerns about the provision permitting large estate homes to be built in the countryside.

"It's a weak-kneed report that will please primarily people who want to build million-dollar estate lots, and multi-millionaire developers are very happy today," Colle said.

But Debbe Crandall of the group Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, who sat on the advisory panel, said a basic consensus emerged about which areas needed the most protection.

"We acknowledge that there are issues that still need to be addressed and areas we'd like to see strengthened," Crandall said.