The Toronto Star
NEWS, Thursday, May 4, 2000, p. A27

Tory turnabout could save moraine

David Lewis Stein

COULD THIS be the big breakthrough? Will we hear today that Queen's Park is acting to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine?

We live in hope. If tantalizing rumours about the province wanting to protect a wide corridor on the crucial Richmond Hill area of the moraine turn out to be true, the Harris government is acting just in time.

A recent poll shows 60 per cent of committed Tory voters in Richmond Hill, Uxbridge and Bolton, three cities on the moraine, would consider changing loyalties if Queen's Park allows developers to send in the bulldozers.

The moraine is a 160-kilometre ridge of crushed rock, clay and sand that soaks up snow and rain into subterranean reservoirs. It feeds the headwaters of major water courses, including the Don, Humber and Rouge rivers, which, in turn, re charge Lake Ontario.

Nine conservation authorities on valleys with rivers flowing out of the moraine are putting together their own moraine policy. This will be a challenge to the province.

A powerful new report shows farmland below the moraine is turning into a morass of urban sprawl - and Queen's Park isn't doing anything to help.

So the Tories would be unwise to count on Tuesday's tax-cut budget overwhelming the unease people in outer cities feel about the region's future. Tax cut money will disappear but the moraine will always be with us - we hope.

So maybe the Tories have decided they must act. Today, the ministry of municipal affairs will evidently release a map showing a "corridor," on the Richmond Hill moraine. It is rumoured the map is to be delivered to the Ontario Municipal Board, which is facing developers demanding permission to build more than 10,000 houses on the Richmond Hill area of the moraine.

They are not going to like this corridor. It was supposed to be only 600 metres wide but the map indicates in some places it will be a lot wider - if advance word is accurate. The corridor will expand to more than one kilometre to protect Lake Wilcox, which is so polluted it has so-called artificial lungs pumping in oxygen.

The corridor will evidently take in a dozen kettle lakes created by melting glaciers at the end of the ice age - and their drainage systems. These lake are pretty, as well as being delicate environments and developers plan to build around them. The protected corridor would keep them away.

The corridor would reportedly block development on 50 to 70 per cent of the land in a packet of large projects planned for the east and west sides of Yonge St., at the northern end of Richmond Hill.

These projects include almost 8,000 houses. If they go ahead as proposed, the subdivisions would come close to cutting the moraine in half.

But the map is just for openers. The ministry is said to be drawing up a protected corridor right across the 160 kilometres of the moraine. If all this turns out to be true, it could go a long way toward saving the moraine - and just in time.

That recent poll in Bolton, Richmond Hill and Uxbridge also showed that 88 per cent of the people who consider themselves Tory supporters favoured protecting the moraine.

The survey was done by Oraclepoll Research Ltd., which contacted 400 people by telephone - considered a reasonable sampling. It was commissioned by Earthroots, an environmental group that grew out of the fight to save virgin forest in Temagami and now has 10,000 newsletter subscribers scattered across Greater Toronto.

The nine conservation authorities that protect rivers flowing from the moraine are working together - sometimes uneasily - to develop their own moraine policy.

Municipal Affairs Minister Tony Clement is expected to follow up the Richmond Hill corridor by quickly announcing plans to safeguard groundwater across the province.

The conservation authorities will help keep Clement honest.

They will be backing up what they have to say with experience and scientific knowledge. We will be able to measure what the government says it's going to do against what conservation authorities say ought to be done.

The new study of Greater Toronto by planner Pamela Blais shows that some of the country's best Class 1 farmland lies in a belt south of the Oak Ridges Moraine. But in the 20 years between 1976 and 1996, 60,000 hectares of this farmland - roughly equivalent in area to the City of Toronto - was urbanized.

What do we do for an encore?

Blais is a highly respected planner whose work on urban sprawl became a source for Anne Golden's task force on Greater Toronto.

This latest study is one of half dozen reports commissioned by the Neptis Foundation. Next week, Neptis will begin releasing reports that will provide a fascinating new picture of the way in which Greater Toronto is growing up and out.

So our knowledge is expanding and concern about the future is crossing party lines. The Tories could not pick a better moment to take action on the moraine.

But then again . . .

"In the States they say, 'I'm from Missouri, show me'," says Toronto Councillor Dick O'Brien, who is also chairman of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

"I'm from Etobicoke. I'll believe it when I see it."