August 30, 2004

Greenbelt proposals would connect ecosystems while balancing other land uses

In its final report and recommendations to the Ontario government, the Greenbelt Task Force proposes measures for ensuring permanent greenbelt protection in the Golden Horseshoe region, connecting its environmentally sensitive natural systems while preserving agricultural and natural resources and enhancing both urban and rural areas.

The 13-member Greenbelt Task Force was established by Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Gerretsen this past February. It was asked to oversee stakeholder and public consultations, and make recommendations on the scope, content and implementation of a permanent greenbelt in the Golden Horseshoe region. Following the release of a discussion paper in May, the task force heard from more than 1,200 people and received more than 1,000 written submissions. More than 60 stakeholder groups were represented at public, stakeholder, and municipal meetings during the consultation period.

The task force's recommendations are intended to help the government in its efforts to protect environmentally sensitive areas and farmland while recognizing the other needs of a rapidly growing population. They also complement the government's overall vision for growth in the Golden Horseshoe laid out recently in the draft discussion paper Places to Grow (ELW July 19, 2004).

In its report, the Task Force offers recommendations for determining which lands should be protected from development in order to preserve Ontario's natural heritage, sensitive environmental areas, vital agricultural communities, natural resources, and opportunities for tourism, recreation and experiencing cultural heritage. The recommendations will provide the basis for a detailed draft plan to establish a permanent greenbelt, to be released for public consultation by the government this fall.

"After six months of deliberations and extensive consultations, it was obvious to us that Ontarians are passionate about the health and vitality of their communities," said task force chair Rob MacIsaac. "We believe our recommendations will provide the government with the direction it needs to develop a definitive greenbelt plan that will create livable communities and establish a permanent legacy for protecting the environment across the Golden Horseshoe region for generations to come."

As envisioned by the task force, the Golden Horseshoe greenbelt will be a permanent and sustainable legacy, enhancing the quality of life in both urban and rural areas with a continuous and connected system of open spaces. It will serve diverse functions across the Golden Horseshoe region, including:

-providing green space between, and links to, open space within the region's growing urban areas;

-protecting, sustaining and restoring the ecological features and functions of the natural environment;

-preserving viable agricultural land as a continuing commercial source of food and employment by recognizing the critical importance of the agriculture sector's prosperity to the regional economy;

-sustaining the region's countryside and rural communities;

-conserving and making available natural resources essential to a thriving economy; and

-ensuring that infrastructure investment achieves the environmental, social and economic aims of the greenbelt.

The task force's recommendations address a number of key issues related to establishing a greenbelt, the first being defining the greenbelt. The province, it says, should take a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach to this, and should provide a policy and fiscal framework designed to ensure the permanence of the greenbelt. The report suggests several principles as the basis for deciding what lands should be included in the greenbelt, and says the greenbelt and growth management initiatives should proceed simultaneously.

The task force calls for a systems approach to environmental protection, and says the greenbelt system should include important natural heritage and hydrological features and functions such as the Oak Ridges Moraine, the Niagara Escarpment and the Rouge Valley. It should also include connections (such as public parks and stream and river valleys) between these features and functions. Priority areas should also be listed, in consultation with key stakeholders, and classified as sensitive (with very limited permitted uses such as conservation and existing agriculture) and less sensitive (available for a variety of compatible uses consistent with greenbelt objectives).

With regard to agricultural protection, the task force recommends that Ontario's tender fruit and grape lands, and all of the Holland Marsh (including the portion outside the greenbelt study area) be included in the greenbelt. Key agricultural lands should be singled out for protection, based on science, socio-economic factors and regional and local official plan designations and criteria. (In response to an early task force recommendation, the government established a separate agricultural advisory team in June, to examine issues relating to agricultural viability.)

Infrastructure, including transportation facilities, should not be located within the greenbelt unless certain criteria specified by the task force are met. These criteria include ensuring that any proposed infrastructure within the greenbelt is consistent with the task force's vision and with the province's growth plan, says the report. The task force further recommends that alternatives first be explored which would (1) maximize conservation and (2) optimize the capacity of existing infrastructure.

Where new infrastructure is deemed necessary, the task force stresses the importance of: minimizing environmental, economic and social impacts; preserving open spaces; respecting natural and cultural heritage features; and ensuring that the purpose and integrity of the greenbelt are not undermined. The report adds that the province should review the environmental assessment process to ensure that emerging green technologies and innovative designs are encouraged, and that an appropriate balance of roads and transit is established when transportation infrastructure is proposed.

Recommendations relating to natural resources call for areas classified as high-potential mineral aggregate sites to be included in the greenbelt. Land uses that prevent or limit the possibility of future mineral aggregate extraction in these high-potential areas should be precluded, and any such extraction in the greenbelt should be subject to more rigorous requirements for rehabilitation, adds the report. The task force also recommends that more recycling of aggregate material be strongly encouraged and that monitoring be carried out to ensure that rehabilitation proceeds as required. The province, it adds, should review the licensing process to facilitate new supply and to ensure the integrity of hydrogeological and ecological systems and natural features and functions.

Additional recommendations deal with culture, recreation and tourism, as well as administration and implementation. The Greenbelt Task Force's report, Toward a Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt - Greenbelt Task Force Advice and Recommendations to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, may be viewed on-line at www.greenbelt.ontario.ca.

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