Nowhere to Grow: Is the Greenbelt hurting a small Ontario town?

By Mark Brosens - Published on May 22, 2015
Sunderland, Ontario in Brock Township.

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Brock Township Mayor John Grant describes his community as the "705 in the GTA." Even though Brock's on the border of the Greater Toronto Area, he argues the township has more in common with the rural Northern and Central Ontario municipalities that share its area code.

He says Brock shouldn’t be included in the Greenbelt—he thinks it’s harming his township.   

The Greenbelt is a 1.8-million acre ring of protected green space that surrounds the GTA. Grant likes to emphasize that the Greenbelt is a “great initiative.” That he’s in favour of saving ecologically sensitive land and stopping suburban sprawl. Grant also says, however, that the Greenbelt created “unintended consequences” for his municipality. The mayor’s watching Brock’s population and tax base decline, and he believes the province has taken away many of his tools for tackling these problems.  

By protecting land from development, the Greenbelt has slowed the growth of areas like the Brock Township in the GTA. While some residents feel slower growth has helped preserve the small-town, rural character of their communities, Grant counters that the Greenbelt is a straightjacket, making it difficult for Brock to create a development plan for the future.  

Brock’s roughly 11,000 residents live on or near the eastern shore of Lake Simcoe, about an hour and twenty minutes by car from downtown Toronto. Between the 2006 and 2011 censuses, the township’s population declined by 5.3 per cent, while the rest of Durham Region grew by more than eight per cent.   

Since all of Brock Township is in the Greenbelt, Grant says the municipality can’t grow outside the boundaries of its three existing communities -- Beaverton, Cannington and Sunderland. “If you took a Greenbelt map,” he says, “if you coloured it blue, like a lake, what you’d then see are three small islands: Sunderland, Cannington and Beaverton. And inside those islands – or urban boundaries – is the only place we’re allowed to develop.”   

On top of the Greenbelt, Brock Township must adhere to the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, source water protection legislation and the regulations of natural features laid-out by the Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority. “The province has taken away our ability to do any local planning at all,” continues Grant.   

Under such circumstances, Brock’s forced to make difficult decisions. For instance, a developer proposed building eight 8-story condos on the Beaverton fairgrounds right on the shores of Lake Simcoe. It would have operated as a time-share resort geared to families and retired people. The developer wanted to build on the existing fairgrounds because, as it was in Beaverton’s existing boundaries, it was beyond the restrictions of the Greenbelt. Since Beaverton’s residential areas are mostly built-up, would-be developers need to repurpose existing properties.    

That left the community in a quandary: many residents were initially enthusiastic about the development and the jobs it would bring. However, it would have meant losing the fairgrounds.   

The developer did offer to buy a new plot of land on the edge of Beaverton to relocate the fairgrounds. Brock decided against it, though, since it would have meant key parkland moving to the outskirts of town. In the end, the development never went ahead.    

Grant sees the Greenbelt as a tool for preventing suburban sprawl. He doesn’t see how suburban sprawl is a threat in a rural community like Brock. “We’ve never had urban sprawl,” he says. “The urban sprawl has been in, basically, between Lake Ontario and the Oak Ridges Moraine, on an east-west direction. To be lumped in with them was quite the surprise.” Grant thinks the main reason Brock is in the Greenbelt is simply because policy makers decided it would just be easier to include all of Durham Region. Grant notes that Brock’s neighbours who aren’t in Durham Region -- the Township of Ramara and City of Kawartha Lakes -- weren’t included in the Greenbelt, even though all three municipalities are similar.  

The provincial government maintains the growth plan has goals beyond stopping suburban sprawl. According to Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing spokesman Conrad Spezowka, the Greenbelt Plan is also in place to protect agricultural lands and natural environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and support sustainable economic development in the region. The provincial government is undergoing a 10-year review of the Greenbelt and accepting input from the public until May 28. For his part, Grant would like municipalities to have more flexibility over simple decisions, such as subdividing farmlands.  

Despite the difficulties that Brock faces, Grant thinks the township has a bright future. “Our next wave of immigration is going to be the 55 year-olds and up from Toronto,” Grant says. “They’re going to sell their houses. The average home in Toronto is now a million dollars. You can come up here and get a beautiful house for $300,000 and put the rest in the bank.”  

Image credit: choosebrock.ca

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