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Durham greenbelt champions win for now
Regional council backs off plan to earmark 5 areas of protected land for development

by Carola Vyhnak
Toronto Star:
Feb. 1, 2007

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Environmentalists are breathing a sigh of relief that 2,200 hectares of protected greenbelt lands in Durham Region are safe – at least for now.

Last week's decision by Durham regional council to keep its hands off the land "signals a new, greener vision – one that respects the greenbelt boundaries and protects our green spaces, farmlands and natural areas," says Dr. Rick Smith of Environmental Defence, a member group of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance.

The decision shows a commitment to "safeguarding our collective food security" for the future, adds Nathan Fahey, spokesperson for the Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) Coalition.

Stung by media portrayals as anti-green and pro-sprawl, regional councillors voted overwhelmingly to back away from five areas of protected greenbelt lands totalling 2,200 hectares.

The region's planning committee had recommended that the land be earmarked for development in an attachment to Durham's official plan even though the province won't review greenbelt boundaries until 2015. But council decided to simply receive the committee's report as information and do nothing more.

"Durham Region never once planned to remove any land from the greenbelt until it comes up for discussion," Region chair Roger Anderson said at last week's meeting, slamming the media for giving "wrong information ... a distortion."

The decision "shows that the new regional council is a greener, more environmentally sensitive council than the last one," Ajax Mayor Steve Parish said after a two-hour debate by councillors, environmentalists and area residents on the issue.

"We're not going to poke a thumb in the eye of the greenbelt any further."

But those who are fighting to preserve the greenbelt don't see the decision as a total victory or permanent resolution.

"I'm pleased with the result," says David Kempton, a member of the Sierra Club of Canada. "It shows the power of the people to demand leadership on environmental issues."

But "I'm not going to kid myself" that the lands are now safe from future development, he adds.

Still, the "crisis" has been deferred until 2015, which at least buys them time to educate people and politicians about the importance of greenbelt lands for near-urban agriculture, he says.

Pickering regional councillor Bonnie Littley echoes Kempton's concern that the battle is far from over.

While everyone realizes "sprawl is a horrible thing," supposedly protected land is still being sold to developers, she says, citing the Duffins-Rouge agricultural preserve in Pickering.

"The boundary lines of the greenbelt may not be perfect ... but no one's putting their money where their mouth is. Developers are still buying land," Littley says.

At last week's meeting, residents, lobbyists and politicians pleaded their case from every angle.

Warning council against giving itself a "black eye," environmental lawyer David Donnelly said they would be making a "terrible mistake" if they designated lands in the greenbelt for future growth.

He questioned how the "lucky five" areas were chosen, suggesting they contributed money to councillors' election campaigns.

"The lucky five are here today with their paid delegates. Big developers don't spend a day in council chambers for nothing but hot air."

Donnelly later credited councillors who had previously voted in favour of shrinking the greenbelt for realizing they were heading down a "dead-end street."

But Kevin Tunney, a professional planner representing Ajax farmers who own about 250 hectares of the 2,200 under discussion, argued that parcel doesn't belong in the greenbelt because it's neither environmentally sensitive nor suitable for agricultural use.

The province included the area in legislation to protect greenbelt lands two years ago without the approval of residents or Durham Region, he charged. "They shouldn't be shut out again."

Uxbridge regional councillor Howie Herrema put his own spin on the argument: "The only reason for growing corn in Ajax is to stop garbage from blowing into Whitby."

Scugog Mayor Marilyn Pearce offered the rural perspective, saying that while her municipality supports the greenbelt plan, farmers' interests in the "buffer areas" must be considered.

"Have you ever tried to get a tractor along Taunton Rd. in rush hour?" she asked councillors.

"You've given them nothing. You've given them a line on a map," she added, describing a scenario with pigs and chickens living across the road from homeowners. "We need the right compromise."

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Copyright 2007 Save the Oak Ridges Moraine (STORM) Coalition