Urban sprawl would be a timely campaign issue

The Hamilton Spectator, Feb. 19, 03 Ian Urquhart -- Torstar News Service

Two years ago, then premier Mike Harris was beset by pressure to "do something" about urban sprawl and the resulting gridlock in the Greater Toronto Area. So he began talking about "smart growth," a phrase his speech writers borrowed from Al Gore.

Harris was pretty vague about what he meant, but the government began "consultations" with "stakeholders" and held a smart growth "summit."

Cynics saw the whole exercise as a delaying tactic.

Then a year ago, in one of his last acts as premier, Harris appointed a "smart growth panel" for central Ontario, an area defined as stretching from Trenton to Niagara Falls. He named Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who has been dubbed "the queen of sprawl," as chair.

With such a chair and such a broad geographical mandate, the cynics again had a field day.

But now, with Harris long gone, something quite useful is about to emerge from the whole exercise.

The panel is set to release a pair of reports that could fundamentally alter the direction of urban development in Ontario -- if the government accepts its recommendations.

The first report -- on "strategic directions" -- is to be released this week. I am told it recommends that the province adopt policies that favour "compact development" over sprawl and transit over highways.

It reportedly even suggests that "boundaries" be drawn to fence off certain areas from development, a concept that is anathema to the developers.

But next month's report -- on "implementation" -- could have even more impact with its specific recommendations for government action.

The panel is meeting this Friday and Saturday at the Seneca College campus in King City to consider those recommendations.

My sources say the following will be on the table for discussion:

* Dedicating a portion of the provincial gasoline tax to investment in transit.

* Some form of GTA-wide governing body to co-ordinate and plan future development of the region.

These ideas have the firm endorsement of McCallion herself, who has turned out to be anything but the champion of sprawl that her critics portrayed.

It is far from certain, however, that the recommendations will make it into the report of the panel, which is composed of a hodge-podge of municipal councillors, civic officials, developers and environmentalists, all with competing interests. Thus, its recommendations could be watered down to mush.

But if they emerge in sharp-edged form, the government will feel the jab.

Heretofore, the Conservative government has rejected the idea of a dedicated gasoline tax. And while the Tories established the Greater Toronto Services Board, an embryonic GTA government, they subsequently killed it after they started the smart growth process.

Versions of both ideas have found their way into the platforms of the opposition Liberals and New Democrats.

And with an election looming, it would be difficult for the Tories to say no to recommendations from their own panel.

Watching all this from the sidelines are the developers, and they are becoming increasingly anxious.

When the Liberals last year called for curbs on sprawl, the Urban Development Institute (UDI), a voice for the industry, angrily accused them of "political grandstanding."

A recent UDI newsletter also reproduced an article in celebration of sprawl from The Report, an Alberta-based, right-wing magazine.

The article described efforts to curb sprawl as a "soul-destroying scheme that would transform us into automatons whose only purpose is to serve the state."

Another industry voice, the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association, has called for "opening up new land for development" and "consumer choice between roads and transit."

It argues that development in the GTA is already higher in density than in comparable American cities.

These are not voices in the wilderness. The developers are major donors to the Conservative party and have the government's ear.

Other interests could also line up against the smart growth panel, including: the Ministry of Finance (which opposes dedicated taxes); the rest of the provincial bureaucracy (which sees a GTA-wide government as a threat to its own existence); and the regional governments (likewise).

However, the government is also feeling anti-sprawl and anti-gridlock pressure from GTA voters, especially in the 905 belt around Toronto.

The Tories hold all but two of the 21 ridings in the belt (including Premier Ernie Eves' own seat) and need to hold on to them to stay in office.

Thus, if the smart growth panelists make tough-minded recommendations, they could tilt the balance in favour of government action.

Or, at the very least, they could make urban sprawl an issue in the upcoming election campaign.

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