Plan that reins in urban sprawl

Robert Howard - The Hamilton Spectator October 30, 2004

In the broadest of strokes, the provincial government's greenbelt plan deserves public and municipal support. This is a plan that has admirable intentions and that has a long-term vision of the future of this province. Its intentions meet an increasing public perception that urban sprawl cannot continue at its present pace.

God, architects say, is in the details and that is true of this draft plan. There are questions to be answered and concerns to be addressed before it should become reality through legislation.

Queen's Park would freeze urban development in a 720,000-hectare swath from Niagara through the Greater Toronto area, almost to Peterborough. It is a huge area and developers have been aware of its potential. It was to be expected that homebuilders, others in the development industry, and land speculators are not happy.

But it was not hyperbole for Premier Dalton McGuinty to say he expects that, a century from now, "no one will complain the problem with that government at the beginning of the 21st century is that they saved too much green space." He's right. Preserving green space -- an essential ingredient to livable communities -- can always be undone. Developing it cannot.

The largest single development issue in Hamilton is addressed in the plan's allowance for city-planned development of agricultural lands surrounding John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport. Commercial development there is a cornerstone of Hamilton's economic future.

The plan apparently does propose to protect serviced land in Winona where Hamilton council decided four years ago to expand its urban boundary for residential development. The province appealed that to the Ontario Municipal Board and now appears poised to put its position into law through the plan.

The plan apparently does not infringe on current OMB-approved urban boundaries, which is important. Municipalities are facing unprecedented financial burdens and desperately need to continue planned development to improve their tax bases.

But each affected municipality will have its own issues with the Greenbelt plan. In Halton, for example, Chair Joyce Savoline is most concerned with what land is not protected.

Another issue is the impact on property owners, particularly farmers, whose retirement security is vested in the resale value of their land. This is not an issue of land speculation, but of longtime landholders who are seeing the legitimate equity in their property go up in smoke.

Compensation should not be out of the question in some of those cases: A plan as ambitious (and beneficial to the public) as this has to come at some taxpayer cost.

The province has public meetings scheduled for next month and plans to have the legislation finalized by Dec. 16. The province, impatient as it may be, should recognize this deadline must not preclude addressing individuals' and municipalities' legitimate concerns. For the greater plan to succeed, the details of it must be worked out.

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