Update: on May 25, Durham Region voted in favour of this plan. Read our story about the decision here.

Ontario’s Durham Region, east of Toronto, is set to vote this week on whether to open more than 9,000 acres of farmland for development, a plan recommended by developers. 

The regional government — which encompasses the communities of Ajax, Pickering, Brock, Clarington, Oshawa, Scugog, Uxbridge and Whitby — is the latest municipality to grapple with a provincial order to nail down how it will grow for the next three decades. The plan going before regional council on May 25 was pitched by a development industry lobby group. It was then approved by the region’s planning committee despite warnings from planning staff, who said it doesn’t comply with provincial rules requiring density near public transit, and is could increase greenhouse gas emissions

Durham hasn’t outlined exactly where the 9,000 acres, or 3,771 hectares, would come from, if the plan is approved. But critics say it would be impossible to find that amount of space without opening up the long-contested headwaters of Carruthers Creek in northeast Pickering, something experts have warned could lead to more flooding in the downstream town of Ajax. 

Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier called the proposal “reckless and irresponsible.” 

“We know that these lands are sensitive to the north, we know that we have flooding issues in the south,” Collier said, adding that he isn’t satisfied with developers’ plans to mitigate any problems. “I don’t expect that our concerns are going to be listened to.”

The provincial government, which is making big promises in the 2022 Ontario election around increasing housing supply, has been pushing cities in the Greater Toronto Area to expand their urban boundaries outward. Environmental advocates have argued that planners should instead accommodate expected population growth by putting denser development on land that’s already been set aside. Farmland plays an important role in local ecology and mitigating the climate crisis and should not be developed, they say. 

Some municipalities, like the City of Hamilton and Halton Region, have pushed back at the province and decided to freeze their urban boundaries in place. Peel Region, on the other hand, voted to open 10,000 acres for development.

An aerial view of a creek flowing into a pond, then draining into Lake Ontario in an area surrounded by houses.
An aerial view of Carruthers Creek as it enters Lake Ontario in Ajax, Ont. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority has identified a zone in Ajax where the creek is vulnerable to flooding. Photo: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

Durham’s unique version of this debate is really the latest clash in a long-running conflict between the communities of Ajax and Pickering over the region’s future. Pickering, with a population of just over 99,000, has consistently backed developers’ efforts to encroach on rural headwaters of Carruthers Creek, which are close to Ontario’s Greenbelt but left out of the protected area.

Developing the headwaters would deteriorate the already damaged waterway, according to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, increasing the risk of floods in Ajax, which has a population of nearly 127,000. Ajax has pushed to leave the headwaters intact, and even add them to the Greenbelt — a call that’s been supported by the Progressive Conservative candidate running to represent the riding in the Ontario legislature, Patrice Barnes.

Helen Brenner, a Pickering resident who is advocating against urban expansion as part of the grassroots group Stop Sprawl Durham, said it’s hard to comprehend how the current plan is even on the table. 

“In some ways, our blessing is our curse,” Brenner said. “We have so much land, we just think we can gobble it up at no cost.”

Proposal to pave over Ontario farmland is ‘a recommendation from out of left field’

Durham Region’s total population is more than 699,000, and expected to nearly double by 2051. To accommodate all those new residents, planning staff came up with five options. It then recommended one, called scenario four, which included denser development but would also have opened up about 2,348 acres (about 950 hectares) of farmland for new housing. (Separately, staff also recommended opening up 2,894 acres, or 1,174 hectares, for business and economic activity.) 

Collier said Ajax preferred scenario five, which would have fit all new development on land already set aside, but called scenario four a “fine compromise.” 

But on May 3, Durham’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan, endorsed a different option, the one regional council will now vote on — one proposed by the Building Industry and Land Development Association, also known as BILD. The group represents about 1,300 companies in the Greater Toronto Area that work on land development, home building and renovation. Its plan called for far more housing development land than what planning staff recommended: 6,425 acres (2,600 hectares) for housing alone, with a focus on detached single-family homes. With the 2,894 acres that would be opened for commercial use, a total of 9,319 acres would be slated for development.

Detached single-family homes are the least dense residential option, and other scenarios called for a greater mix of options, like apartments and duplexes. But the industry association said the option recommended by planners didn’t have enough land slated for single-family homes to meet market demand, regional staff noted. The Building Industry and Land Development Association didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Narwhal.

Farmworkers harvest carrots in the Holland Marsh, in the Greenbelt region north of Toronto, in Bradford, Ont.
Farmworkers harvest carrots in the Holland Marsh, in the northern part of Ontario’s Greenbelt. Further east, significant chunks of farmland in Durham Region are also protected as part of the Greenbelt. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

In an emailed statement, Ryan said his city believes the developers’ plan is the best way to add some density and more apartments to Durham, while still leaving plenty of greenspace and agricultural land intact. Significant chunks of farmland in Durham Region are already protected as part of the Greenbelt.

“This scenario would greatly enhance the number of residents being housed in the missing middle, realizing a significant move away from the historically high proportion of low-density units, while also maintaining a shift to more apartments in Durham,” the statement said. 

Regional planning staff disagree with that conclusion. In a May 3 report that the planning committee saw before making its decision, staff said they, along with hired consultants, “are of the view that the BILD scenario does not represent an appropriate vision for growth.” In a different report, consultants hired by the region also concluded that denser development is “the most cost-effective action a municipality can take” in the fight against climate change.

Phil Pothen.
Phil Pothen of Environmental Defence said that Durham Region can accommodate all of its expected growth without opening more farmland to development. Photo: Ramona Leitao / The Narwhal

Phil Pothen, Ontario environment program manager at the non-profit Environmental Defence, said the development industry’s proposed scenario is “outrageous.” and wouldn’t follow the rules set by the province to encourage density around existing transit corridors. The provincial government could theoretically intervene if it passed, he added.

“​​It’s really a recommendation from out of left field,” Pothen said, noting that he believes political donations from developers are a significant force in local politics. “They sort of went off on the road and proposed this alternative that no credible expert was recommending.”

Pothen also argued that Durham can accommodate all of its expected growth on the land it already has set aside. That doesn’t have to be skyscrapers — it can also include more of the “missing middle”’ Ryan referred to, like townhouses and low-rise apartments.

“The committee is reckless and extreme in its proposal because Durham has more land than any other region or city already open for development,” he said. 

The region has an opportunity to make different choices that can help the climate, Brenner said.

“It’s not rocket science to realize that now is the time to act to save the future for generations ahead of us.”

Durham Regional Council is scheduled to vote May 25.

Updated on May 25, 2022 at 3:12 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to correct Phil Pothen’s title.

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