Battle cries over Oak Ridges development frame debate about
By Simon Avery
Toronto Globe and Mail
The sliver of the Oak Ridges Moraine that has become the
battleground of developers, environmentalists and politicians
represents more than the billions of dollars in building
contracts, critical habitat for many species of animals
and a credibility test for the newly elected premier.
The planned subdivisions on seven rural blocks between
Bathurst Street, Bayview Avenue, Jefferson Sideroad and
King Road have become the flash point for a broader set
of issues that will define how the Greater Toronto Area
develops in the next 30 years and how its rapidly increasing
number of residents will live.
In its defence of developing the moraine properties,
the building community is emphatic that the city faces
a looming land shortage and that builders must be allowed
to provide consumers with choice. Environmentalists are
responding with calls for higher-density development near
public transit nodes and the need to quell public expectations
that everyone should aspire to owna large house with a
big yard and double driveway.
Over the next three decades, the population of the GTA,
now at 5.2 million, is expected to increase by as much
as three million people. Highways, public transit, electricity
and other services will feel the strain, but by far one
of the biggest challenges will be providing places for
new Torontonians to live.
"They [will] need to buy houses. Where are these
people going to go?" says Joe Valela, president of
the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association, echoing
the industry cry for the need to construct more houses
and more subdivisions.
"We need to accept the reality that the city is
growing and [housing] supply is getting tighter and tighter."
The amount of land available in the GTA today for home
construction will run out in just 14 years, according
to a report that Hemson Consulting Ltd. submitted to a
government "smart-growth" panel in February.
In Durham, York, Halton, Brampton and other areas, there
is still plenty of land, but the municipalities have not
designated it for residential development, and the process
of getting that land zoned and constructing homes on it
can take more than a decade.
"The supply is the tightest it has been in 30 years,"
says Ray Simpson, president of Hemson Consulting, a land
Environmentalists call the land crunch a myth, noting
that developers are carpeting tracks of land with subdivisions
at a phenomenal rate. Since 1989, some 200 square-miles
of land in the GTA has been designated for residential
construction, an enormous amount when one considers that
the former municipality of Toronto itself is only 240
The notion of a 14-year supply is based on a density
rate of 10 units an acre. A more realistic rate would
be 35 units an acre, achieved with mixed construction
that includes detached and semi-detached homes, townhouses
and high-rises of between six and 15 storeys, says David
Donnelly, legal director for Environmental Defence Canada,
a non-profit environmental group.
Development at this higher level of density becomes "transport
friendly," meaning it supports enough trips per household
to sustain a bus route, a rapid-transit system or a subway,
Not only are the low-density, car-oriented, sprawling
subdivisions that define greenfield development today
clogging up highways and roads with commuters, but the
developments are also heavily subsidized by municipal
governments that find themselves paying for new sewers,
playgrounds and arenas, Mr. Donnelly says.
Municipalities with a lot of subdivision construction
are spending between $1.17 and $1.41 for every $1 they
raise through municipal taxes, he says.
One reason environmentalists dispute builder's claims
about a land shortage is because no one has detailed numbers
on how many homes could be provided through brownfield
Toronto politicians recently approved an official growth
plan covering the next 20 years that protects most residential
neighbourhoods and parks from growth and channels development
along arterial streets, brown field sites and waterfront
development. But the plan is vague on details and numbers.
The port lands, which run from Cherry Beach to Leslie
Street, south of Lake Shore Boulevard, could promise almost
"infinite" opportunity if the area was redeveloped,
Mr. Donnelly says.
Developers say they are already building smarter in the
city core and that Toronto has a higher proportion of
its housing in high-rises than any other major North American
city (about 29 per cent to New York's 22 per cent, Hemson
says). But high-rise apartments alone will not be enough
to meet demand, and large subdivision housing projects
are essential for the growth of the GTA, they say. The
development community also argues that infill projects
alone (which usually involve multiunit dwellings) deprive
home buyers of choice.
Without a clear and detailed vision of what form of housing
the city is going to support in which neighbourhoods,
every development becomes an arena where proponents of
these long-standing opposing positions slug it out, and
the Oak Ridges Moraine -- one of the most significant
land forms in southern Ontario -- has become the most
The 160-kilometre-long ridge of sand and gravel hills
provides a direct source of clean drinking water for more
than a quarter of a million people and, indirectly, millions
more. It forms the headwaters for more than 65 rivers
and streams, including the Don, Humber and Rouge, and
provides wetlands, forests and other critical habitat
for many animal species.
The tracts of land under dispute are particularly significant
because the construction would choke what is already a
pinch point on the moraine, leaving a tiny green corridor
between the east and west sides of only 600 metres at
the narrowest point, environmentalists say.
Most builders on the site have owned their land for years,
long before the province took steps in the early 1990s
to protect the moraine. They selected the area for its
beautiful natural setting and its proximity to major transportation
corridors and existing services.
The previous Progressive Conservative government signed
agreements allowing construction in the area. Liberal
Premier Dalton McGuinty promised in his campaign to block
the subdivisions, but after reviewing the contracts, he
announced only a short-term freeze, which will end next
The moraine is such a major test-case for urban development
that Mr. McGuinty's threats to block the subdivisions
are adding to builders' fears about a land shortage and
increased environmental resistance to their projects in
Mr. Valela cites three timely examples: A project in
Aurora, where more than half a dozen builders had projects
stopped recently before getting them reapproved this month;
Oakville's plan to build more than 55,000 new houses on
8,000 acres of pastures and ravines, which is drawing
increasing resistance from environmentalists; and a $220-million
expressway project near Hamilton, where protesters continue
to chain themselves to mature maple trees coming down
as part of the construction in the Red River Valley.
"We can't just think that we have to protect the
environment. That's not vision," Mr. Valela says.
The challenge is to find the balance between saving greenspace
and satisfying housing demand.
On the Oak Ridges Moraine, "the government is stopping
construction of 6,600 units that have gone through the
[approval] process. That's a message I just don't understand,"
The supply of available land designated for residential
development varies from municipality to municipality.
Across the city, 1,075,000 new housing units will be needed
by 2031. Of these, 750,000 will be detached, semi-detached
or townhouses. But city planners have approved land development
for only 425,000 such ground units, according to Hemson's
report, entitled "Growth and Urban Land Need in Central
In York Region, home of the moraine controversy, there
are about 44,600 housing units approved for construction,
representing just five years of supply, says Patrick Casey,
a spokesman for the municipality.
The 6,600 homes at stake on the Moraine represent nearly
15 per cent of that five-year supply.
"At the stroke of a pen, we could be down a year's
supply, and no one's opening up other land. There's a
quid pro quo that [the public] doesn't understand,"
says Neil Rodgers, president of the Urban Development
Institute, a public-policy research company for the building
"We will run out of land within the approved boundaries
[of the GTA] and then the forces of supply and demand
will take hold and you will see prices increase. The consumer
all of a sudden becomes conflicted, saying, 'I didn't
think environmental protection would cost all that,' "
Mr. Rodgers says.
The new-home buyer rarely speaks up in the urban development
fight. Until a model home goes up in a muddy field, consumers
are absent. Once they become homeowners, many take a stance
against further development.
"Our society, as a whole, is rather schizophrenic
on this issue. We like big houses with large driveways
for an SUV and a minivan and new community amenities.
But we also say I just don't like it," says Mr. Rodgers,
referring to the sprawl that is consuming the rural edges
of the city.
Once "they already live there, they don't want anybody
else," adds Mr. Valela. "You just can't have
it both ways."
Environmentalists also shift some of the responsibility
for dealing with development issues to the homeowner.
It's fine to argue for consumer choice, but home buyers
should be paying the true cost of owning a house in an
increasingly crowded city, and those costs include tangibles
such as municipal services, and intangibles such as environmental
costs, Mr. Donnelly says. "We don't want to stop
growth, we want it controlled."