Will the Tories’ planning-rule changes mean more sprawl — or the same sprawl, but faster?

ANALYSIS: The Progressive Conservatives say their priority is to get new homes built, and the rules they’ve proposed reflect that aim. But John Michael McGrath asks what the real-world results will be
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 18, 2019
Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, Steve Clark, this week released the province's proposed changes to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. (Chris Young/CP)



Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing has made no secret of the fact that getting more new homes built is his priority. And while Steve Clark hasn’t yet unveiled his ministry’s housing-supply action plan, the government this week released its proposed changes to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which lays out the rules governing land-use planning across the central part of the province.

The most notable change the Tories are proposing (formally, the amendments will be open to public comment for 45 days) involves a substantial reduction in density targets for outer-ring municipalities — targets for Brant, Dufferin, Haldimand, Northumberland, and Simcoe and Wellington counties will be cut in half (from 80 jobs or people per hectare to 40); municipalities closer to Toronto will see less significant reductions.

Such proposed moves already have critics warning that the government has opted for the sprawl-driven growth model the Liberals tried to contain. As Environmental Defence’s executive director, Tim Gray, put it, they “mark an end to provincial rules that support smartly planned, transit friendly communities, and the protection of farmland.”

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But is it “more sprawl” if the rules simply allow the sprawl that was going to happen anyway to happen faster?

Municipalities were always permitted to apply for “alternative targets” if they didn’t think they could meet the 80-jobs-or-people number, and the government says that’s exactly what they did: not one of the outer-ring municipalities was close to meeting its target through new greenfield development.

“What we were told in consultations that started last fall is that people want a simplified approach to the density targets,” Clark told TVO.org on Wednesday. “The previous government looked at it as one-size-fits-all, and local communities wanted more flexibility.”

Shouldn’t they be trying harder, though? Maybe. But efforts to meet the existing target could have had perverse results — high-rise towers built on the periphery of a city, next to farmers’ fields. As it stands, the plan envisions such developments being served by transit, but municipalities aren’t in any financial position to run buses to the outskirts of town.

(This happens to resemble very closely the argument developers made against the targets when they were first introduced; the reader can either discount it or laud its prescience accordingly.)

And there’s a similar defence for the government’s move to allow municipalities to use industrial (“employment”) lands for housing: under the existing five-year review process, they’d be allowed to do that in 2022 anyway — these changes will simply allow them to do so faster.

On paper, at least, the Tory proposals are undeniably less concerned with the issue of low-density sprawl than were the plans of the previous government. (The government even deleted the phrase “low-density urban sprawl” from the list of ills the plan was supposed to address.) Whether they actually end up generating more sprawl — instead of simply marking a recognition that the existing rules weren’t changing the facts on the ground — is another question entirely.

It’s certainly not the case that they’re uniformly pro-sprawl. The Tories are proposing to expand, from 500 metres to up to 800 metres, the size of zones around major transit stations (including TTC subway stops) that would be targeted for more development. They also aim to scrap a rule that would have allowed cities such as Toronto to average their density across multiple stations and was intended to protect some neighbourhoods from new construction by boosting it elsewhere. These changes could mean more new housing being built near more transit stations.

“These are all things we were told make sense and reflect local priorities,” Clark said.

The proposed amendments also include language emphasizing that rural areas aren’t supposed to see new growth — like the Liberals before them, the Tories are trying to shut the loophole, identified by the Neptis Foundation in 2017, that led to sprawly subdivisions being classified as “intensification.”

And, of course, there’s more housing policy still to come. (One significant question yet to be answered is whether developers will get their wish and see the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal — formerly the Ontario Municipal Board — regain some of the powers that the Liberals stripped from it.) The public will get a better idea of what other big ideas the Tories have on the housing front later this year.

“We’ve made it clear we want to build more housing, more quickly, at a price people can afford,” Clark said. “We made some big decisions about it, and we’re moving forward.”

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