Regional councillors in Ontario’s Durham Region voted Wednesday, May 25, to approve a development industry lobby group’s plan to open more than 9,000 acres of farmland for development.

They did so in spite of a last-minute warning from Durham Region planning staff, who cautioned that the proposal would take more land than needed to achieve housing goals, while setting back climate action and encouraging sprawl. It would also cause long-term “challenges” in planning for key infrastructure like parks and schools, staff wrote on May 24. 

Alexis Whalen, who has advocated against the proposal as part of the grassroots group Stop Sprawl Durham, said the 16-11 vote is an “extreme disappointment” that shows “how short-sighted municipal politics really is.” It happened on the heels of a deadly derecho storm, which killed 10 people as it swept through southern Ontario — including Durham Region — and Quebec, also leaving hundreds of thousands of homes without power. Derecho events are likely to become more common as the climate crisis intensifies. It should have given municipal politicians pause, Whalen said.

“We have this real case study playing out in front of our very eyes of an overheating world, more extreme weather, more direct impact on residents,” she said.

“To lean into a decision that’s going to perpetuate the problem? That seems incredibly insulting to people who are actually facing the consequences of this.”

Durham Region includes the communities of Ajax, Pickering, Brock, Clarington, Oshawa, Scugog, Whitby and Uxbridge,  which is currently in a state of emergency following the storm. Durham is the latest municipality to vote on how best to accommodate the next three decades of growth, a process prompted by the Ontario government. 

The province has pushed cities in the rapidly-growing Greater Golden Horseshoe area, stretching from the suburbs east of Toronto around Lake Ontario to Hamilton and Niagara, to expand their urban boundaries outward in a bid to increase housing supply. Environmental advocates say cities should accommodate that growth by placing denser developments on land that’s already been set aside — farmland is important for local ecology and mitigating climate change, and shouldn’t be paved over, they argue.

Some communities, like the City of Hamilton and Halton Region, have pushed back against the province and refused to expand their urban boundaries. But Durham Region’s vote places it in the same camp as Peel Region, west of Toronto, which voted in April to open 10,000 acres for development.

Durham Region planning staff came up with five different scenarios for councillors to choose from and endorsed one that would have opened up a lesser amount of farmland for development and emphasized denser housing options, like mid-rise apartments and duplexes. 

But the region’s Planning and Economic Development Committee endorsed a different option,  proposed by the Building Industry and Land Development Association, also known as BILD, a lobby group representing about 1,300 development companies. The lobby group’s version called for more detached single-family homes, the least dense option for residential housing, and would open up a total of about 9,300 acres of farmland, or 3,771 hectares.

The association didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Narwhal.

Durham hasn’t said where the 9,300 acres would come from. But critics say it would likely affect the headwaters of Carruthers Creek, an area that has long been at the centre of battles over development. Experts have warned that urbanizing the headwaters, which are located in Pickering, will cause flooding downstream in Ajax. Politicians in Pickering have pushed to develop the headwaters, while Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier has advocated for its protection.

“This short-sighted decision makes the urbanization of the Carruthers Creek headwaters not only possible, but likely,” Collier said in a statement Thursday.

“Climate change is here and we must protect this ecologically sensitive system. Urbanization will only exacerbate the problem.”

Whalen said it’s frustrating to see municipal leaders not listen to residents, many of whom wrote letters to council asking them to vote against the plan.

“Why bother consulting,” she asked, if “ultimately that feedback and that process does not factor into the result.”

Updated on May 26, 2022 at 2:48 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to add a vote breakdown and comments from Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier.

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