By: Debbe Crandall, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM)
Fifteen years ago this Saturday, April 22—Earth Day—I climbed to the top of Mount Wolfe, one of the high points of the Oak Ridges Moraine, which happens to be my back yard. I remember standing there, dancing a victory jig and shaking my fist in the direction of Toronto and Brampton and the sprawl which, for the time being, had been stopped—at least for the lands in the Oak Ridges Moraine.
Photo courtesy of Pete Paterson
Campaigning for Moraine Protection
It had been a long haul for me and many others who were aware of the Oak Ridges Moraine and what was at stake as development crept north out of Toronto. Already in the early 1990s we were seeing the first signs that change was in the air: white boards declaring applications for zoning changes, clear-cutting of precious forests, and for-sale signs on agricultural lands with staggering prices tags. The campaign traversed three different governments, and in 1994 we came close to securing a long-term management plan—only to see everything stop after the 1995 election.
Demonstration at Queens Park for Oak Ridges Moraine protection, circa 2000. Photo courtesy of Earthroots.org
Enough is Enough
The campaign was resurrected four years later and came to a head when developers in Richmond Hill almost convinced the Town to pave over the last remaining moraine lands along Yonge Street. This would have totally cut off natural east-west connectivity and compromised the moraine’s ecological integrity. In February 2000, over 1,500 people showed up at a public meeting to protest the Town’s Official Plan Amendment. We prevented the approval of thousands of new single-family houses set to be built on some of the most ecologically and hydrologically significant lands of the moraine in York Region.
This meeting sent out a strong signal that enough was enough. In May 2001 the province put a freeze on all planning matters on the moraine. The rest is history—a new 1,600 acre corridor park surrounding Bond and Phillips Lakes; a leading edge conservation plan, which stopped all new urban development on 92% of the Oak Ridges Moraine and froze settlement area boundaries for 15 years; and a new $15 million fund for landowner stewardship including restoration and the implementation of best farming practices.
Two Million Acres of Permanent Protection
Four years later, in 2005, the new Liberal government passed the Greenbelt Act and Plan. By adding 400,000 hectares of new Protected Countryside Areas, the Greenbelt knit together the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine. This resulted in permanent protection for almost two million acres of some of Canada’s best farmland and an interconnected system of natural heritage and hydrologically significant features. It was a bold vision and a line drawn in the sand to stop urban sprawl.
Can We Still Dance a Jig?
Has sprawl been stopped? No. We know this by following the breadcrumbs that lead over the Greenbelt to Simcoe, Brant and Wellington Counties, and to Guelph and Waterloo. Are we better off and can we still dance a jig? Unequivocally, yes. But more work remains.
We need to grow our Greenbelt to truly stop sprawl in its tracks, protecting rural lands and vulnerable water supplies that perform essential ecological services—including moraines that lie outside the Greenbelt; Simcoe County’s precious groundwater; the tributaries and wetlands of the Grand River watershed; and the headwaters that originate across the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
We also need strong regional planning to direct growth towards complete communities. The impacts of a changing climate and projected population increases to 13.5 million people in 2041 population demand no less.
Today, let’s look to the future and celebrate on how far we’ve come!
Director of Policy
Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM)