Paving Paradise – Gutting Planning Rules Sacrifices Natural Heritage to Urban Sprawl
“They paved paradise, put up a parking lot. …”
– Joni Mitchell, from Big Yellow Taxi, 1969
A Foreword by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Re-osted July 26th, 2019 on Niagara At Large
To repeat one of those mangled phrases made famous by the late New York Yankees baseball legend Yogi Berra; “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
It is a phrase that seems fitting in Ontario these days as the province’s current premier, Doug Ford, and his Tory government take us back a couple of decades to the dark years of Ford’s old friend and mentor, former Tory premier Mike Harris, when cutting and gutting policies and programs for protecting what is left of our natural heritage to unleashing low -density urban sprawl was the rule of the day.
Under a mantra of “open for business” (as if all our province and the regions in it are is venues for doing business), the Ford government has been changing rules and regulations in ways that make it easier for the greediest and most irresponsible and backward-thinking members of the development industry to have a hay day with lands that should otherwise be protected and preserved for farming and for supporting a health and rich diversity of life (including ours) on this planet.
Like Harris before him, Ford’s “open for business” mantra is, among other things, a way of selling us on the idea that we have to make a choice between economic growth and environmental protection or that when it comes to our wetlands, for example, we have to continue accepting a balance between urban growth and what few wetlands or meadows or forests we have left.
But this is a false choice and the more responsible and progressive members the development industry know it. Ford and his government are working for the interests of those who want to encroach on what are left of our provincially significant wetlands, our forests and other precious blue and green places at any cost.
A few months ago, I happened to come across an old column I wrote in 1996 when I was still working as an environment reporter at The St. Catharines Standard and shortly before those who bought The Standard and numerous other newspapers across Canada from their previous owners (in the case of The Standard, the previous owner was the locally based Burgoyne family), and began to eliminate or sharply reduce resources for an environment beat at these papers.
What is so disheartening to me when I re-read this 23-year-old column, headlined; “Paving Paradise – Gutting planning act sacrifices natural heritage to urban sprawl,” is how far back Ford and the vested interests he is working for have dragged us as we approach the third decade of a 21st Century with time for preventing a possible environmental meltdown rapidly running out.
When I read this column, and substitute the name Mike Harris for Doug Ford, it is just as relevant, if not more so, than it was when I wrote it in the last decade of the 20th Century, which is why I am posting it here again.
So here that column is –
Gutting planning act sacrifices natural heritage to urban sprawl
By Doug Draper, A Reporter’s View (originally published in The St. Catharines Standard on April 13th, 1996
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
– Joni Mitchell, from Big Yellow Taxi, 1996
When Mike Harris wings his way over Ontario, he can’t understand why there is so much fuss about urban sprawl.
“When I used to fly a lot from Toronto to North Bay (to his home Riding in Nipissing), I’d look out of that little Dash-8, and it looked to me like there was enough land out there for lots of people,” the Premier said during a recent meeting with The Standard’s editorial board.
“Yet I’ve got everyone telling me, ‘You’ve got to tuck people in. You’ve got to intensify.”
Indeed, who can argue with that kind of high-flying analysis of the province’s capacity to absorb more urban sprawl? Particularly when it comes from the province’s highest elected official.
So last month, Harris’s troops paid heed by gutting a two-year-old planning act which (if given half a chance) would have turned the corner on 50 years of paving over the countryside.
At the same time, the Harris majority gave third-reading passage to its own planning rules, devoid of a set of “No means No” provisions in the 1994 legislation forged by the then-government NDP.
Those provisions were designed deliberately to curtail urban expansion. And by coming right out front and saying “No” to development on prime farmland, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas, they also would have taken a lot of the guesswork and legal wrangling out of what has often been a very long, costly and confrontational planning process.
But the idea of saying no to developers obviously didn’t sit well with Mike Harris. To use his words, he wanted to “restore some balance” to the process.
It is hard to imagine, though, where the centre of gravity is in the premier’s universe.
After all, the 1994 planning rules were not foisted on us by some cloistered fringe group. They were a product of compromise, following three years of intensive study and broad-based discussion at numerous public meetings attended by thousands across the province.
To turn around and trash them within a few short months hardly pays homage to balanced policy making, let alone democracy.
And where is the “change” and “common sense” the Harris Tories promised when they were swept into power last year?
What change will come from turning back the calendar to times when there were fewer rules on development in the countryside? Where is the common sense in perpetuating the kind of development so many experts now say is bankrupting us?
A no less conservation institution than the Bank of America concluded last year, in a special report it published called ‘Beyond Sprawl’, that the type of low-density residential and commercial development that has dominated municipal planning in North America since the end of the Second World War has led to “enormous social, environmental and economic costs which, until now, have been hidden, ignored or quietly borne by society.”
The significantly higher costs of building and maintaining sewers, roads and other infrastructure in low-density areas compared to high-density areas – particularly in the age of crippling government deficits – means “we can no longer afford the luxury of sprawl,” the report says.
A more recent report, prepared for a task force studying the future of the Greater Toronto Area, echoes the same conclusions. It estimates that a continuation of sprawling development in the green fields around Toronto will cost the taxpayers of Toronto and Ontario billions of dollars a year that could be saved if there was a shift to more compact development in existing urban areas.
Ah, but what about all of that open land the premier spotted on his plane rides?
Anyone can travel across this province or this country and see lots of wide open land out there. It doesn’t necessarily follow that it should be buried in asphalt.
It should also be kept in mind that we humans have a tendency to settle in those areas that have the best soil and climate conditions we can find for growing food and that have an abundance of fresh water.
Take Niagara’s fruitbelt, for example. The next time Harris does and aerial survey, he would do well to start by studying some aerial photos taken of the fruitbelt over 50 years ago. Then get up in a plane and look down at what’s left of one of the few areas in the entire country for growing world-class grapes and tender fruit.
He could see the north end of St. Catharines, once a carpet of orchards and vines, covered over with subdivisions and strip malls. He could fly along the stretch of the fruitbelt between St. Catharines and Grimsby and see the QEW widened from two to four to six lanes, while warehouses and other cinder-block bunkers line up along it like horse flies sticking to a pest strip.
Last spring, I ventured to another part of Niagara where, I was told, the last known pair of red-shouldered hawks in the peninsula was nesting.
The site of these rare birds, perched high in a beech tree, was wondrous. But there was a problem.
Rows of new houses were now going up along the marsh area in south Pelham where this same pair of hawks had been feeding and nesting for more than a decade. The birds, protective of their young, were now swooping down and attacking people who came to close to their tree.
Clearly, the situation was no longer acceptable for the birds or the people, and the bird experts said it’s probably just a matter of time before last red-shouldered hawks disappear from the Niagara area – just like our farmland, wetlands, woodlots and other natural areas are disappearing, slowly but surely, a few hectares at a time.
But at a time the Harris Tories are weighing the value of every provincial policy and program in dollars and cents, how can you argue for policies and programs for protecting our natural heritage?
How can you put a dollar figure on a red-shouldered hawk, on a wetland or on preserving our prime farmland for future generations?
It is so much easier for someone to take out a calculator and estimate the cash value of building another strip mall or subdivision.
And at least Mike Harris would not have to look down from his plane and see so much empty land.
(Written and published when Doug Draper covered environmental issues for The St. Catharines Standard.)
To view the February 2018 video of Doug Ford making his comments about the Greenbelt, click on –
To read a 2018 news commentary posted in Niagara At Large on then-candidate Doug Ford floating the idea to developers of allowing urban development in Ontario’s Greenbelt, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2018/05/02/doug-fords-plan-to-open-a-big-chunk-of-our-greenbelt-to-urban-development-should-doom-his-pc-partys-ontario-election-chances-2/ .
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