Greenbelt expansion holds some of the answers

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Greenbelt expansion holds some of the answers

By Mark Bisset

This article was previously published in the May, 2016 edition of The Villager, Washago Community Newspaper.

I was standing on Young Street near Vaughan recently feeling rotten.

There was nothing wrong with me physically. It was Young Street that I was reacting to. It feels as if Toronto has crept up that venerable old road without restraint, gobbling up some of Ontario's best farmland, rolling woodlands and even wetland.

Had I stood there a decade earlier, I would probably been looking at a family farmstead; maybe a forest.

The only thing that will restrain this juggernaut is Lake Simcoe itself. And even then, the development only skips to the west and continues up Highways 400 and 11 toward Washago, like a flash flood in slow motion.

I realize this feeling puts me in a certain subset of the population. And maybe on another day I would have had a different reaction ("Cool, a Starbucks.") But I was on my way to a meeting of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance, which exists to protect a little bit of our province from this urban onslaught.

Across the decades, Ontario has done a very poor job when it comes to good planning that recognizes the importance of natural heritage and agricultural land. There are many reasons for that, from divided jurisdictions, to the honest desire its citizens feel to have a home of their own, to the relentless pursuit of growth to generate jobs and tax revenue.

But I think the biggest reason is abundance.

We have so much land, and so much water, we assume we can never run out. So these essentials are relegated to external factors in all economic equations when they are considered at all.

Some years ago, one answer to this general planning failure was rolled out: the Greenbelt.

The Greenbelt Act of 2005 paved the way for the creation of a Greenbelt Plan to protect about 1.8 million acres of environmentally sensitive and agricultural land in the Golden Horseshoe from urban development and sprawl. It includes the Niagara Escarpment Plan and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan. It has helped.

Now the province is looking at expanding the Greenbelt and I believe Simcoe County should be part of it. The county is slated to experience some of the greatest growth in the province over the next 25 to 50 years. With the existing limited environmental regulations in place, that will mean trouble for many of the natural places we now love.

To address the question of Greenbelt expansion, a citizen's group has formed called the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. It is among more than 100 community groups that is asking the province to consider increasing the size of the Greenbelt by about 1.5 million acres. One of the things these groups need to succeed is broad community support for the idea.

 It would be wrong to frame the discussion that will follow as "Growth vs. Greenbelt". I am just as interested in prosperity as the next guy. I live in a nice house, I have a good job that depends on a strong business sector and a prosperous community. I'm a consumer of goods. I would be thrilled if my kids could find good jobs here.

It is poor planning with no regard for our life-support systems that I take issue with. We need to find a way to achieve that prosperity while rejecting the fallacy of endless growth. Establishing stronger protection for green spaces, watersheds and agricultural land is part of that solution.

The Couchiching Conservancy is participating in this important planning exercise, and I urge you to do the same by going to www.simcoecountygreenbelt.ca.

Mark Bisset is the Executive Director of The Couchiching Conservancy, a non-profit land trust that has helped protect more than 12,000 acres in the Lake Couchiching region. For more information on the Conservancy, go to www.couchichingconserv.ca.

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