Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Mixed Messaging on Simcoe County Growth

I have had the opportunity of being close to the growth issue for about 8 years and learned firsthand about the issue while a member of the Committee of Adjustment for Springwater Township, a small municipality of 18,000 bordering Barrie and Wasaga Beach. My initial thinking was that all growth was good growth when I was asked by the mayor and councilor of the day to sit on the committee. As I studied the Provincial Policy Statement, the Places to Grow and the IGAP policies as they unfolded I quickly realized that uncontrolled growth is bad growth and is definitely not sustainable. That is what is happening in Simcoe County if allowed to proceed.

When we talk about sustainability it involved three key factors, the economy, the environment and the social wellbeing of the people. Some people refer to sustainability as people, planet and profits. Without one the system fails.

Let’s look at the economic impact. On the short term there would be a spike in jobs in the building and service trades, but where will the sustainable jobs come from? The province directs employment lands to be created but no method of restricting residential growth until jobs are created. I was amazed that the economic study undertaken by Springwater Township in 2010 confirmed that almost 90% of non-farm workers left the township for employment. Why would it make sense to add more housing without job creation? In the past most municipalities grew in an orderly and organic fashion to bring people to a community as the job opportunities were created. The world has discovered in the last five years that growth is not the answer to the economic crisis of the world.

Most people have come to realize that we are upsetting the ecological balance in the world today. Creating more bedroom communities is contrary to the intent of the province’s growth directive as the dependence on the automobile must be reduced not increased. The current growth plans promotes commuting. The 7 primary settlements identified in Places to Grow make some sense. They are all close to large bodies of water that can provide both the drinking water and the effluent discharge from their sewage treatment plants. The other 84 settlement areas need to be restricted in growth as they can cause irreversible harm to both the aquifer where they will draw water or the small creeks and tributaries where they will discharge the effluent. In these smaller settlement areas restricted growth on sub surface waste treatment systems must be the order of the day. That means very small developments. We can’t ignore the environment in our thirst for growth.

If we have no jobs and people must spend 2 to 4 hours commuting to seek employment and it takes both partners to make ends meet, how does that improve the social wellbeing and health of the individuals or the community where they live. The simple answer is that it does not. Livable communities are more than parks, trails, bike paths and recreation facilities and places to shop. Communities should be places to live, relax and enjoy the company of your neighbor. With the growth that is planned for Simcoe County in the next few decades, these community aspects will decline and we will see the creation of urban ghettos.

Simcoe County has the opportunity of becoming a model of how good growth should occur. That can only happen if the local and county councils take planning back into their hands, listens to what the current residents have to say and proceed in an orderly fashion. The policy and phasing in each of the municipalities must be created by the local council and not be dictated by the large landowner groups or developers, which has now become the norm in the last ten years.

When the green belt around Toronto was created about 10 years ago, the view was that residential growth will stay close to the large employment centres around the GTA and density will automatically increase. I don’t think anyone imagined that as the land disappeared and was ate up with poorly planned urban sprawl that these large developers would leap frog the green belt and simply treat Simcoe County as an extension of the GTA. That is what is and will happen if the Province and the County fail to control growth and keep the numbers controlled and possibly reduced to avoid the spread of the development disease.

Our hope is that the county will keep the projected number at the 667,000 or less, that growth will be directed to the primary settlement areas and that residential growth is only permitted when jobs are created and there is proof there is a real need for more housing in the communities.

We are at a precipice and if the local municipal councils and the county council do not take charge, then the unique character of both Simcoe County and those 91 settlement areas will be destroyed forever.