The Greenbelt, the two-million-acre band of protected land surrounding the Golden Horseshoe, is designed to preserve a huge swatch of southern Ontario from urban sprawl. But for most of Greater Toronto, the nearest green space will continue to be local park and conservation areas within its urban areas.
Last week, the province proposed reforms to the Planning Act and the Development Charges Act that would give municipal governments power to encourage better planning for parks and increase accountability for how they pay for them. The result, according to Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ted McMeekin, will be more urban green space.
“Green belts, to be effective, need to not just run around cities, but through them as well,” McMeekin said when Bill 73 was announced last week.
The problem is that current legislation allows cities and towns in the rapidly growing GTA to take development fees intended for parkland and funnel them into general accounts. As a result, critics have often charged municipalities pad their budgets with parks money without delivering actual parks.
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To curb that practice, the new law would penalize municipalities who divert funds.
Currently, developers are required to provide one hectare of dedicated parkland for every 300 units of housing they build. If that’s impractical or impossible, cities can accept “cash in lieu” and developers hand over the dollars to buy a hectare of land instead.
Under the new law, developers would have to offer less money than if they simply hand over the land—one hectare’s worth of cash for every 500 units, instead of 300.
The government hopes the steep discount will encourage municipalities to try harder to build their green spaces rather than simply take cash on the table.
In addition, cities and towns would face substantial new accounting requirements, requiring parks money to be set aside in a separate account and detailing how that money is spent.
“You won’t just be able to take the money and throw it in a general fund,” McMeekin said.
In the same set of reforms, the Liberals also proposed changes to the Ontario Municipal Board that could help constrain sprawl and protect rural green space. For regional municipalities across Ontario that want to pen in development with planning boundaries, such as York and Waterloo, there’s a two-step process: upper-level municipalities create a settlement boundary, and then those boundaries are implemented by smaller local municipalities.
While the new bill would remove the OMB from appeals at the second stage, the board would still have the power to overturn attempts to constrain sprawl with settlement boundaries at the first stage—which happened at Waterloo Region when developers objected to the restrictions the regional government tried to impose. That case, one of the most prominent examples of a region trying to constrain sprawl outside of the Greenbelt, has since been appealed to the Ontario Divisional Court, with Queen’s Park expressing a provincial interest.
McMeekin announced other planning measure last week as well, including other minor limits on OMB appeals, preceding a more thorough review of the OMB’s role coming later this year. That will add to the panel convened to review the Greenbelt itself, which is due to report in early 2016.
Image credit: Joe deSousa / Flickr