How to Build a Better Greenbelt

May 27, 2014

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– Part 3 of our series on The Big Review –

Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan was established in 2005, creating a permanently protected landscape made up of 1.8 million acres of green space, agricultural land, existing settlements and natural heritage features and systems. The Greenbelt is a key component of Ontario’s growth management strategy that directs development away from rural areas that contain significant agricultural assets, environmental systems, natural resources and recreational opportunities that are central to sustaining a high quality of life for rapidly-growing communities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH). The Greenbelt Plan works along with and reinforces its sister Plan, the Growth Plan, which provides direction on where and how growth should occur. As the largest of its kind worldwide, Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan is both an ambitious and contentious piece of legislation that affects a diverse range of stakeholders from upper, single, and lower tier municipalities to farmers, residents, businesses and developers.

 

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The Greenbelt Plan encompasses and builds upon two prior protection Plans, the Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP) and the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (ORMCP). While these Plans are premised on protecting key natural heritage features, the Greenbelt Plan places a much greater emphasis on protecting agricultural land. The Province has postponed the 10 year reviews of the NEP and ORMCP so as to sync up with the review of the Greenbelt Plan in 2015. There is some thought that this review might now be postponed to 2016 to sync with the review of the Growth Plan.

Leading up to the 2015 review there is a great deal of anticipation and interest from Ontario stakeholders who have been waiting 10 years for an opportunity to have their concerns addressed. While the Greenbelt Plan has generally been embraced by the public, its implementation has not been without challenges. Some regions within the Greenbelt have been proactively undertaking their own reviews in advance of the Provincial review to ensure that they have a current, comprehensive and unbiased understanding of their community’s perspectives on the Greenbelt Plan to inform their input into the Provincial review. Urban Strategies carried out one such review for Niagara Region in 2013 and is currently completing a similar review for Durham Region.

Greenbelt Plan Challenges

While most recognize the value and legacy of the significant protected landscape created through the Greenbelt, a number of common concerns with the Greenbelt Plan have emerged which warrant consideration during the Provincial review. These include:

  • Challenges with agricultural viability – While the Greenbelt Plan protects the agricultural land base, it does little to protect and in some ways has reduced the viability of farming. Policies that are intended to help preserve farmland and natural heritage systems can limit the ability of farmers to diversify their operations and/or make minor additions and repairs to existing facilities and infrastructure that are necessary to remain competitive. Similarly, policies that pose barriers to new or expanded agriculturally-supportive businesses, such as food processing and value-added uses, result in further challenges to the development of a vibrant agricultural economy within the Greenbelt.
  • Conflicts between Greenbelt Plan objectives – There are inherent tensions between some of the goals of the Greenbelt Plan, and the Plan provides little guidance on how to prioritize objectives when they come into conflict. The conflict between agriculture and natural heritage mentioned above is one good example.  Concerns about the Plan’s permissibility of new infrastructure and green energy policies are also common, and are seen to conflict with natural heritage conservation objectives. Similar concerns surround the lack of Greenbelt provisions to ensure timely remediation of aggregate operations, which have the potential to negatively impact surrounding settlement areas, natural heritage features, and tourism and recreational opportunities.
  • Challenges to the viability of rural communities – Greenbelt policies can prevent rural municipalities from appropriately locating community, emergency, recreational and health services and facilities to serve their populations. Many rural communities also experience servicing constraints that are exacerbated by Greenbelt policies that restrict options to address these issues.
  • Lack of flexibility – The Greenbelt Plan covers a large land base, with a wide variety of place-specific conditions and unique situations. There is currently no mechanism, such as an ombudsman or review body, to hear appeals or make exceptions in special cases. This lack of flexibility can result in undesirable outcomes, as municipalities and conservation authorities may not have the latitude for rational decision making at the site-level, where prescriptive ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies do not necessarily advance policy intent and objectives.
  • Ineffective implementation – while the Greenbelt Plan is now almost 10 years old, conformity at the municipal level is not entirely complete. This is a result of the trickle effect whereby regional municipalities must first bring official plans into conformity before lower-tier municipalities do the same. A further lag occurs as zoning by-laws must then be updated to reflect new official plans. This lag contributes to other concerns, including inconsistent application of Greenbelt Plan policies between municipalities that may result in policy objectives not being met on the ground. The Greenbelt anticipates Provincial monitoring of implementation progress, which would in theory address the status of municipal conformity as well as the Plan’s actual impacts on the ground. The Province has not released any information on monitoring efforts, leading to skepticism surrounding whether this is being undertaken and concern about how this seeming lack of solid data will impact the 2015 review.
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The Provincial Review

An improved Greenbelt Plan should begin with an open, transparent and collaborative Provincial Greenbelt review process. Stakeholders need to have confidence that the Province will listen to and consider their concerns. With the review only a year away, the Province needs to define and share its intentions regarding the length, format and process of the review. Clear communication of the parameters of the review, the release of any available monitoring or progress tracking data, and adequate time and avenues for municipal and stakeholder input would go a long way to establishing a positive review process and a stronger Greenbelt Plan.

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About The Big Review 

We are almost 10 years into the legacy set of provincial legislation and Plans that have changed the planning and development landscape in the Greater Golden Horseshoe in Ontario. The time has come for policy makers to reflect on the effectiveness of those cornerstone planning documents, and a major review period is now underway – priorities identified in the Big Move have recently been revisited, and the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan will soon be under provincial review.

Urban Strategies has a thorough understanding of these Plans and policies, because we have played a role in their development or implementation from all perspectives and at all levels – from provincial, regional and local municipalities to private and institutional development.

On this basis, we offer our insight on the Plans, their review processes, and how their evolutions can help us better manage community growth and sustainability.

Over the coming months, we will post to this Blog our thoughts on how the Plans are working, proposed revisions, and updates on review processes and outcomes.  We invite you to join us in this E-exchange of ideas, with on-the-ground experiences and your thoughts on moving forward