Toronto Star Series: Will Ontario's Future be Green?

Emerald city: The Toronto cityscape rises above the Greenbelt, as seen from Mount Nemo, along the Bruce Trail, 64 km west of the GTA.
Emerald City: The Toronto cityscape rises above the Greenbelt, as seen from Mount Nemo, along the Bruce Trail, 64 km west of the GTA. 

Every Sunday from September 14th to October 17th we'll be publishing a Greenbelt-focused article by veteran Toronto Star journalist John Barber. The articles, which will first run in the Toronto Star on the Saturdays preceding our posts, cover a range of topics relevant to the Greenbelt as it exists today, and to the challenges it may face in the future. On the Wednesdays following each of Barber's articles, we'll be using his pieces as a conversation catalyst in an evening Twitter Party from 8pm to 9pm.

Will Ontario's Future be Green?

Ahead of its 10-year review, the Greenbelt's growth - and legacy - hinges on everyday activism

Main Photo Credit: David McCaig
By: John Barber

Ten years after its inspired inception, the Ontario Greenbelt is a spectacular success, protecting clean air and water, food security, livable communities and biodiversity. A world-leading conservation measure supported by 90 per cent of Ontarians and all political parties, it is universally valued as the essential health insurance for a landscape recuperating after decades of upheaval.

Good news piles up as the time approaches for the scheduled 10-year review of the Greenbelt legislation. In creating mandates for her new government, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made “growing the Greenbelt” a top priority for her new Minister of Municipal Affairs, Ted McMeekin. Municipal leaders throughout the Golden Horseshoe have taken up the call, including expansion of the Greenbelt as a central plank in their election platforms.

Green has never been so rosy in southern Ontario.

Making ground: Tracing urban development and the growth of protected land in Southern Ontario.

Making Ground: Tracing urban development and the growth of protected land in Southern Ontario.  

But that's not how things look to Paul and Virginia Meddick of Oakville, whose dream of retirement to the country was shattered when they applied for a permit to build on the five-acre Caledon property they have owned since 1969. Since then the Ontario government has laid a heavy hand on this land, first putting it under the authority of the Niagara Escarpment Commission, later incorporating it into the Greenbelt. The result today, according to at least one of the two provincial agencies with conflicting policies that claim jurisdiction over the lot, is that the endangered Jefferson salamander has more right to live there than its putative owners.

And the Meddicks, meanwhile, are mired in a trackless bureaucratic swamp with no clear concept of their property rights and no one agency that can provide it.

Farmer Jane Werner of Niagara-on-the-Lake faced a similar obstacle when the local fruit cannery closed and her family looked to cash out by selling their land to a housing developer. “Attention All Farmers,” she subsequently wrote online. “Good luck trying to retire when owning greenbelted land. We have only one choice, to live and die on the farm. We can't ever sell our land.”

Similar grievances abound everywhere the Greenbelt touches – evidence of its power to transform lives as well as landscapes, but equally evidence of its vulnerability. Too often, landowners say, legitimate complaints are met with bureaucratic confusion. Decisions are arbitrary and immune to appeal. People are being sacrificed in the name of wildlife.

The elected council of Durham Region, most of which is now part of the Greenbelt, recently adopted a motion that compiled dozens of such complaints into an argument for significant changes to Greenbelt boundaries and land-use permissions. Many of the demands seem minor, according to Ajax Mayor Steve Parish, a member of the Municipal Leaders of the Greenbelt and one of the minority of councillors who voted against the motion. But they open cracks that could easily become major breaches. “And God knows where it goes from there.”

One pervasive worry among Greenbelt supporters is that municipalities will win the right to “opt out” of the Greenbelt under certain conditions. Others point to pressure to approve land swaps to abet development of Greenbelt lands, like one currently under negotiation in Georgina.

But some demands are legitimate, Parish added. “There does have to be a sensitivity to the fact that people live on these properties, and they have to make a living there,” he said. “We all have to realize that the total burden for preserving this land can't be on just one group.”

Sharing the burden could take many forms, according to Parish, from tax concessions to simply “not red-taping people to death when they want to build an outbuilding.”

The precedent for compromise already exists in the form of farm-friendly initiatives launched by the provincially funded Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and the Greenbelt Fund. In part responding to criticisms that the Greenbelt harmed farming interests, the non-profit groups have thrown their energies into promoting local food production with such programs as Ontariofresh.ca, a business-to-business website that is revolutionizing local distribution, and greenbeltfresh.ca, a network of Greenbelt farmers' markets.

Building on and bolstering increasing demand for local food, the programs are succeeding by any measure. Of the $32.6 million the foundation disbursed up to 2013, 40 per cent went to projects designed to strengthen farm viability. A further 23 per cent was spent in the name of “creating economic opportunities and new ideas.”

And of the surviving criticisms, as most recently compiled by regional governments in both Niagara and Durham, none dispute the overriding validity of the Greenbelt and its goals. Even the Meddicks, their retirement plans trumped by a salamander, support the Greenbelt. Their complaint is with distant and unaccountable authority.

“We're still trying to get someone to listen to us – anybody we can talk to who can see the bigger picture and work with us,” Paul Meddick said. “That's the kind of collaboration we're looking for, and we think we should be entitled to.”

In the real world, the few who can afford to insist on such collaboration – by hiring lawyers and planners to represent their interests – are not individual farmers or families but developers often looking to bust the zoning wide open.

“And of course these are powerful people,” Parish said. “They contribute financially to municipal politicians and they contribute financially to the provincial politicians who ultimately make the decisions.” A York University study of 2006 municipal election finances in 11 Greenbelt municipalities found that almost two-thirds of the contributions came from corporations, 80 per cent of which were developers and their associates.

The result is often policy that works at cross-purposes. A week before Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne mandated Minister McMeekin to “grow the Greenbelt,” she applauded the extension of Highway 404 for its ability to boost development in the Greenbelt. Both forces have momentum.

But the real power is in the hands of ordinary people with individual values. To ensure the future of the Greenbelt, said David Miller, head of World Wildlife Fund and former Toronto mayor, citizens should focus on current municipal elections and “make sure they vote for candidates who support these principles and are really clear about it – who don't talk about exemptions but are clear and absolute in their support.”

Miller also advises Ontarians not only to use the Greenbelt but to speak up about it. “I talk to people all the time who really prize the Greenbelt,” Miller said, “and I always say to them, 'Make sure people know, make sure you tell everybody. And tell your elected officials, because when we create that kind of mass movement, there won't be any backtracking on the legislation.'”

The Greenbelt remains a tremendous achievement on its 10th anniversary, and yet tremendously vulnerable. By this time next year Ontarians will know whether today's hard-won gains are to remain secure in the future – or, in the alternative, to quietly slip away.

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