The Toronto Star
NEWS, Saturday, February 12, 2000

Showdown at the Oak Ridges Moraine
Scenic green space or urban sprawl? The battle lines have been drawn

Brian McAndrew

Lloyd Cherniak, executive vice-president of Lebovic Enterprises, one of the biggest suburban housing developers and a major landowner on the moraine.

Debbe Crandall wasn't supposed to have much impact in one of the first battles against housing development on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Ten years ago a well-connected local housing developer - the brother of the mayor - wanted to build a sprawling subdivision that would have backed on to her family's farm where she grew up in the rolling hills of Caledon East.

But she persevered - and won. The picturesque, snow-covered hills behind her horse ranch north of Bolton remain untouched.

Crandall is still at it as the resolute executive director of STORM (Save the Oak Ridges Moraine), the little coalition that takes on development giants.

Now, the biggest showdown of all is coming between environmental activists and an army of wealthy developers who would prefer to cover the unique landform stretching across the top of Greater Toronto with houses.

The future of the moraine, a ridge pinched together by a pair of glaciers about 13,000 years ago, is on the line. Will there be a healthy green belt protecting the headwaters of the rivers and streams flowing through the country's biggest and most rapidly growing region? Or is the moraine destined to be just another suburb?

Rapid urban growth threatens the ability of the layers of sand and gravel beneath the moraine's thin surface of topsoil to absorb rain and replenish the aquifers that act like massive underground storage tanks. They feed the headwaters of more than 30 rivers and major streams flowing through an area of about 1 million hectares between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe.

More than 400,000 people in York region rely on the moraine for water. About the only pure water flowing in the Don, Humber and Rouge rivers comes from springs gushing out of the moraine.

Continued housing development in Richmond Hill, which includes the highest point of the moraine in the tiny community of Oak Ridges on Yonge St., is creating a break in the natural green corridor - the backbone of Greater Toronto - that stretches 160-kilometres from the Niagara Escarpment to the southern shore of Rice Lake.

Like the first time Crandall took on the establishment, the odds are stacked against her and other allies in the like-minded environmental community that includes the Kettle Lakes Coalition, Save the Rouge Valley System, Federation of Ontario Naturalists and Earthroots.

The York, Durham and Peel regions have planned for population growth of 98,000 on the moraine over the next 20 years. There are 14 housing development proposals in York and six in Durham that would add another 56,000 people if they are approved.

That's like adding the entire population of Oshawa to the more than 110,000 people already living on the moraine.

Housing developers see the moraine as fertile territory for investment.

"I'm like a farmer," boasts Lloyd Cherniak, executive vice-president of Lebovic Enterprises, one of the biggest suburban housing developers and a major landowner on the moraine. "I plant sewers in the spring and houses pop up in the fall."

The attitude grates on environmentalists who believe the development sector is out of control while the provincial government feigns concern but fails to act.

"What this is all about is getting an anti-urban sprawl policy in place from the provincial government," says Crandall. "The moraine is the springboard. This is where the (Greater Toronto) waters begin. If we can't stop urban sprawl here, we won't ever be able to stop it."

The war for the moraine is raging on three different fronts near Uxbridge, King City and on the biggest battlefield of all, Richmond Hill.

In King City, an Ontario Municipal Board decision is being awaited to determine if a sewer line will be extended from Bathurst St. in Richmond Hill.

Build a pipe and they will come. The village, just west of Richmond Hill near Highway 400, would see its population double from 5,000 to 10,000. Installing a new sewer line opens up opportunity for even greater expansion.

A municipal hearing is pending over the contentious Gan Eden proposal near Uxbridge in Durham Region. Joey Tannenbaum, the aging industrialist and arts philanthropist, wants to turn a family enclave into 2,500 houses and an arts centre that could become a summer home to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

This, too, would require a major 22-kilometre extension of the shared York-Durham sewer system. Both Uxbridge and Durham councils have said no to the project but Tannenbaum remains undeterred having filed an appeal to the municipal board even before the councils made their decisions.

Waterfront Regeneration Trust commissioner David Crombie finds a disturbing trend emerging with developers running to the municipal board before local councils deal with the issues.

"Talk about getting it backward. This gives the right to the developers to disregard the democratic process," says Crombie, whose organization is concerned about the future of the moraine's headwaters.

The municipal board makes its decisions based on provincial policies - not municipal wishes - and that has given developers the advantage in having their way with the moraine, Crombie explains.

There is no substantive provincial policy for development along the moraine, just a weak set of guidelines established in 1991 in anticipation of regulation coming after a $2 million study.

The study landed on then-natural resources minister Howard Hampton's desk in 1994 as an election loomed. The Conservatives took over in 1995 and shelved the report with its recommendations that most environmentalists find acceptable for controlling development.

Cabinet minister Tony Clement, who holds both the environment and municipal affairs portfolios that would be seemingly at odds when dealing with moraine development issues, has insisted the 1991 guidelines are sufficient.

"We have something in place that is workable if applied properly. It can provide a balance," Clement says.

He has rejected calls for a freeze on moraine development until the province can come up with a development policy.

Crombie says the province must act quickly to protect the moraine.

"Only the province can put this in context and they have failed to do that," he says.

Meanwhile, developers are pushing ahead, determined to take advantage of the absence of provincial participation and increased pressure on municipal planning offices.

Richmond Hill planning commissioner Janet Babcock will tell anyone willing to listen that her department has been overwhelmed by the combination of the downloading of planning responsibilities by the province and the large numbers of housing proposals under consideration.

"We have been and we are the battleground for development on the Oak Ridges Moraine," says Babcock. "For the past three years we have asked the province for funding for hydrogeology (groundwater) studies and legislation but the province has said no. We don't need a freeze on development but we need the 1994 strategy adopted."

Developers have plans for putting 11,000 homes on the moraine at Richmond Hill. The council will continue debating the proposed rezoning of the 2,800 hectares of rural and agricultural land on Feb. 23.

Richmond Hill council has encouraged housing development on the moraine more than any other elected body.

Cherniak, also head of the Urban Development Association, insists the development industry has little influence on the Richmond Hill council despite the amount of election campaign contributions made to nearly every councillor.

Developers with holdings on the moraine contributed more than $20,000 in Richmond Hill during the last municipal election.

The amounts ranged from $1,250 to Councillor Brenda Hogg - the only critic of the development plans - to $3,200 to Councillor David Cohen. Only Councillor Joe DiPaola received no contributions.

"I don't have an open door to councillors or the planning staff," Cherniak said. "I have to fight for every piece of information I get."

There has been a groundswell of public support to protect the moraine.

Volunteers are to begin Monday delivering 20,000 small plastic bags of wood chips gathered from the moraine's Jefferson Forest that has been cut for Bayview Ave. road expansion.

Glenn De Baeremaeker, an ardent Rouge Valley advocate and organizer with the Kettle Lakes Coalition, is behind the drive to whip up community support to turn the much of the proposed Richmond Hill development properties into a 1,200-hectare Kettle Lakes park.

(The lakes were formed by large blocks of ice left beneath the ground during the glacial period. When the ice melted, the deep, steep-sided depressions left behind were shaped like kettles.)

Richmond Hill is expecting a huge turn-out for the Feb. 23 meeting, moving from the municipal hall to a Sheraton hotel ballroom.

Beyond the park, STORM and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists have worked out several options they want the province to consider to provide better protection for the moraine.

The recommendations include:

Strict land-use polices setting boundaries where development would be prohibited.

Freeze public spending on sewer, roads and water main construction that would bring the most immediate development proposals to a halt.

Devote five per cent of the province's $20-billion SuperBuild growth fund to purchase land on the moraine for parks.

Surcharges on allowed housing and golf course developments to help fund parkland purchases.

Debbe Crandall suggests giving developers the chance to build more houses on other properties in exchange for land holdings on the moraine, a process known as a density transfer.

"The question we have to ask with all this development is are we being fenced in or is the environment being fenced out?" Crandall says.

Adds De Baeremaeker: "A lot of these developers just see us as standing in the way of creating a happy world but public pressure has to be able to change this tidal wave of urban sprawl."