The Toronto Star
NEWS, Friday, July 20, 2001, p. B01

Moraine development freeze set aside
Province allows subdivisions with approvals in place

Richard Brennan

The provincial government has set aside a six-month development freeze on the Oak Ridges Moraine to approve thousands of hectares of subdivisions on the environmentally sensitive area north of Toronto.

"Specifically, any subdivision that has appropriate zoning in place, draft approval and a signed subdivision agreement can go ahead," Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson announced yesterday.

"These projects have already passed the point at which the public has had an opportunity to comment or object."

While opposition critics called it a betrayal, environmentalists were more pragmatic, saying the subdivisions were too far along to stop.

Hodgson said the exemptions to the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act, approved May 17 by all three parties, will affect almost 4,000 hectares.

The minister said 37 of the 110 projects that applied for exemption from the freeze were granted, representing the bulk of the housing considered in the final stages of approval or some 4,250 units. The 110 projects represented some 6,700 units in total.

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

Hodgson said even more developments may be approved: "If other projects are brought to the government's attention that are equally far along in the approval process they will be considered . . . in the future."

Details of the exemptions were expected in mid-June but the government held off until after the Vaughan-King-Aurora byelection on June 28, which the Tories lost.

"This freeze is a farce. The freeze is over," said Liberal critic MPP Mike Colle (Eglinton-Lawrence).

"This is a major betrayal. The government has given massive exemptions to the Oak Ridges Moraine freeze to their developer friends before public input has even begun. People should be up in arms," Colle said.

The moraine is a 160 kilometre ridge of sand and gravel from the Niagara Escarpment to Cobourg, providing the headwaters for more than 30 rivers and streams flowing into Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe.

Hodgson has appointed a 13-member advisory committee, including three homebuilders, to advise him on what action Queen's Park should take on the moraine.

In the meantime, the province slapped the six-month development freeze on the moraine and halted all Ontario Municipal Board hearings touching the moraine to buy time to draft a protection policy.

Hodgson's legislation imposing the freeze was unanimously supported by MPPs from all parties back in May.

But Marilyn Churley, the NDP's municipal affairs critic, said she would have never supported Hodgson's Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act had she known it would be arbitrarily set aside, with no input from either the public or the minister's special advisory panel.

"What a nasty, low-down trick to play on the people of Ontario. . . . We were given the impression that there would be an absolute six-month freeze with no exemptions whatsoever until public consultations happen," she said.

There is a provision in the act, however, that allowed for such exemptions at the discretion of cabinet.

Nevertheless, Hodgson told a news conference that Tories remain committed to protecting the critical parts of the moraine, noting the announcement "applies to land that represents less than one-quarter of one per cent of the total land area of the moraine."

Environmentalist Glenn De Baeremaeker of Save the Rouge Valley System said he wasn't surprised by the exemptions, adding that his concern is protecting the part of the moraine that hasn't been developed.

"By doing it (the freeze) so fast and so secretly there were people caught in the process that literally had the roads and sewers in and the light stands in everything but the house so we will think that this (announcement) still maintains the spirit of the freeze," De Baeremaeker said.

"These are units that were approved in the past and we can't change the past."

Debbe Crandall, executive director of the Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition, is on the minister's advisory panel and agreed the subdivisions "were so far along in the approval process that legally there was nothing that could be really done to stop them."

But Josh Matlow of Earthroots said his environmental group is "very disappointed" the Tory government unilaterally approved the projects. "We believe this is the top of a slippery slope and it also threatens the integrity of this advisory panel."

"What are they doing creating an advisory panel to come up with recommendations for a long-term land use strategy, yet even before they get a report from them they are already making decisions where and where not development should happen? It's ridiculous."