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Great Lakes Article:

Growth confronts moraine
Battle cries over Oak Ridges development frame debate about GTA's future
By Simon Avery
Toronto Globe and Mail
11/14/03


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 economics company.

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 square-miles.

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, he says.

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 development.

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 charged battleground.

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 Thursday..

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 other areas.

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," he adds.

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 Ontario."

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 industry.

"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."

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