The spotted turtle is one of the at-risk species in the Ontario Greenbelt.
Photo © Steve Byland \ Flickr.

Southern Ontario’s 7,200 square kilometre Greenbelt and the prime farmland and headwaters it contains remain at significant risk from expanding urban development despite protective legislation in place for a decade.

Ontario’s Greenbelt at Risk, a study from the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance and Environmental Defence, believes the Ontario government must do more to strengthen protections for the sensitive Greenbelt space stretching from Welland east to Coburg and north to Tobermory.

In the years since the Greenbelt Plan was enacted by Dalton McGuinty in 2005, the expansion of commercial and residential development in the Golden Horseshoe has continued. Massive infrastructure projects, the lingering prospect of an airport in Pickering and the transfer of contaminated soil into the region remain real threats to the ecologically fragile Greenbelt lands.

"These were things the [government] didn't anticipate when the plan was originally put in place that need to be closed now. These are loopholes," according to Susan Swail, coordinator of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance.  

While her organization is still preparing their policy submission, Swail told A\J this week her group surveyed their members to identify what they consider the greatest pressures facing the Greenbelt.

Chief among them are large-scale infrastructure projects the province has greenlighted (such as the Highway 407 extension into Durham Region or the Mid-Peninsula Highway in Niagara) or are considering, such as the GTA West Highway that would run through Halton, Caledon and northern Vaughan. More than $16-billion has been set aside for the 407 and Mid-Pen highways that will pave over approximately 8,400 acres of farmland. The Alliance believes this money is better spent on public transit.

In addition, the Greenbelt Alliance pointed to massive sewer projects, snaking pipelines and a peaker electricity plant in Holland Marsh as other examples where infrastructure was sited in the Greenbelt that would have been better placed elsewhere.

Swail has been working on the report for the past six months in the run-up to the ten-year review of the Greenbelt Plans scheduled to take place next year.

“The 2015 review is an opportunity to close these loopholes and make the plan stronger so that it does what we want it to do," she told A\J this week.

Namely, the Greenbelt Alliance and Environmental Defence are looking for permanent protections of agricultural lands to provide a strong economic base for rural communities. In addition, what urban development does take place in Southern Ontario should focus on building compact communities reliant on public transportation instead of cars.

The Greenbelt Plan review will also inspect the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (which protects a major aquifer for the Greater Toronto Area) and the Niagara Escarpment Plan (which oversees a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve). Together, these three protected areas cover more than 1.8 million acres, making it the largest Greenbelt in the world.

Swail is calling on Premier Kathleen Wynne and Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin (whose ministry oversees the Greenbelt) to strengthen their commitment to permanently protecting agricultural land and clean water resources by halting sprawl.

The ecological and economic significance of protecting the Greenbelt is profound. Worth an estimated $2.3-billion a year in ecological system services and $9.1-billion in economic benefits, the area is also home to 78 provincial species-at-risk, including the Grey Fox, the Spotted Turtle, the Bald Eagle and the Southern Flying Squirrel. The protected area also offsets the emissions of nearly 27 million vehicles.

Charlene Millett, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, told A\J the purpose of the Greenbelt Plans “are to balance environmental protection with the need for sustainable growth and development.” In what she calls a “multi-faceted approach,” the government’s aim is to “direct major growth away from environmentally sensitive and agricultural lands” towards more densely populated urban centres.

To achieve this, the Liberals are working with numerous partners, including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the Ministry of Transportation and provincial planning agency Metrolinx.

Once the full review is launched in early 2015, Millett said the government will ramp up their consultations with municipalities and stakeholder groups like the Greenbelt Alliance.

A coalition of over 100 member groups working on protecting the Golden Horseshoe protected lands, the Alliance has been involved with this issue for more than a decade.

They have recently launched StrengthenTheGreenbelt.ca to encourage the public to voice their anxieties about what's happening in the Greenbelt. Early next year the Alliance will begin hosting town halls within Greenbelt communities to discuss issues of concern.

"This is our opportunity along with the rest of the public ... to talk to the province and tell them what we would like to have changed in the plan to make it stronger," Swail said.

Read more about greenbelts in our Greenbelts issue!

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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