One of the key weaknesses in the reformed land use planning system in Ontario that was developed around 2005 and is now subject to review through public meetings is the planning black hole known as the “White Belt.” This is an area between the Greenbelt and the edge of the urban area boundaries in Hamilton, Halton Region, Peel, York and Durham Region. On these lands urban boundary expansions can take place through every five years, instead of the ten plus protected through the Greenbelt.
The only Regional government around the Greenbelt not to have a White Belt is Niagara. This situation has arisen since one of the chief objectives for the Greenbelt here is to protect Niagara’s unique tree fruit growing lands.
Apart from Niagara, there is only the absence of a White Belt in quite peculiar circumstances, in lower tired municipalities. Burlington, which has consistently supported strong environmental goals such as protecting the Niagara Escarpment from new expressway crossings, has no wiggle room for sprawl. The Rouge Park means that there is no “White Belt” in Toronto. All Toronto land that is possible for urban expansion, unless flood plains are buried here is protected by it and it provincial ownership the Rouge Park master plan. Boyd Park has no White Belt between it and the urban boundary of Vaughan. This protecting what was proposed as an area where urban expansions could be considered was only the result of a successful mobilization of conservation effort during the public consultation on the original development of the Greenbelt Plan.
There are some who argue that the Niagara Region has a virtual White Belt, since a lot of its southern edge is not included in the Greenbelt. However, a recent decision of the Ontario Municipal Board, (OMB), has in effect, virtually sealed Niagara’s entire urban boundaries.
The OMB in rejecting through a failed attempted at “grand-fathering” sprawl through an exemption to the Growth Plan in the City of Niagara Falls, has blocked Niagara sprawl as tightly as if the land was Greenbelted. The reality of this situation is seen by the numbering of official plan amendments for proposed urban expansion. The OMB rejected the proposed Niagara Falls Official Plan Amendment 106. This rejection also killed the only other effort to expand urban boundaries in the Niagara Region, Niagara Falls Official Plan amendment 107, lands located immediately to its west.
When it was created in 2005, the term “White Belt” was popularized by the environmental protection group, the Neptis Foundation. However, in arguing against it, Neptis also came forward with another more evocative phrase, based on a category in the then draft Greenbelt Plan. This was the notion of the “unprotected countryside.”
During the Greenbelt plan’s development Neptis argued that estimates of provincial land need showed that growth could be confined within urban boundaries. During the entire time of the Greenbelt consultations there was no attempt by its critics to cite figures that showed these estimates were incorrect.
In looking at the current situation Neptis has documented the loss of agricultural and environmental protection designations on White Belt lands to urban zoning designations for close to the past decade. This has painted a disturbing picture that the creation of surplus land in the regions which have a White Belt is worse that existed in 2005 when the Greenbelt was created.
The problem of ballooning loss of agriculturally designated land in the core urban growth areas of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Hamilton are carefully detailed in the recently released Neptis publication, “Understanding the Fundamentals of the Growth Plan.”
The key finding of the Neptis report on the Growth Plan is that since 2005 that the White Belt (formerly agriculturally zoned) was reduced through urban boundary expansions by some 19,100 hectares This the study indicates amounts an increase in the urban zoning envelope of the GTA and Hamilton of some twenty per cent. It also found that of this area only 5,200 of these recently urban zoned lands have been put into actual urban use. This has had the impact of inflating the area for future urban growth in the GTA and Hamilton, by some 13,900 hectares more than the situation of 88,000 hectares of vacant lands zoned for urbanization in 2005.
The situation of the White Belt encompassing the best prime agricultural land in Canada is well known. These predominately Class One and Two soil under the Canada Land Inventory also have a good microclimate, although mercifully, not comparable to that of the Niagara Fruit Belt.
More serious than the loss of prime agricultural land in the GTA and Hamilton is the watershed impacts of these urbanizations. Apart from the impact of resource extraction such as mining and tar sands development, these urbanizations in the White Belt constitute some of the worst impacts on water quality in Canada. A torrent of storm water pollution has been released from the 5,200 acres of formerly agriculturally zoned land that has been actually urbanized and more will inevitably come from the 13,900 hectares that await development. The remaining White Belt lands need to be greenbelted as an urgent measure to protect water quality and biodiversity.
In Hamilton the putting into urban zoning of former White Belt lands to facilitate a project known as the Airport Employment District, will have negative impacts, as they are actually urbanized, on two already vulnerable and degraded watersheds. These are the Welland River and the Twenty Mile Creek. These urban expansions have taken part in their headwater areas. The most effective way these streams and their warm water fish habitat, that supports Northern Pike and the species at risk, the Grass Pickerel, can be protected is to put all the remaining agriculturally zoned land here into the Greenbelt.
What makes the ecological impact of urban expansions even more disturbing is the threat they pose to the cold water streams in Halton, Peel, York and Durham Regions that support healthy populations of native Brook Trout and in some instances, recovering populations of Atlantic salmon. It appears quite absurd to have the headwaters of these streams on the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine be protected by the Greenbelt, when downstream they will contaminated by a rush of storm water that could be prudently avoided through the inclusion of the remaining White Belt lands in the Greenbelt.
The future of the Welland River, the Twenty Mile Creek, Carruthers Creek and the cold water streams that flow into Lake Ontario from the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine to the east and west of the City of Toronto depend on the conversion of the White Belt to the Greenbelt. To avoid this reality is a cruel delusion.
Written by: John Bacher
Picture: Ten Mile Creek in Niagara Falls which could be protected by expansion of Greenbelt in Niagara