McGuinty fires a warning shot at developers
-- just in time

By John Barber -The Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 15, 2004

I felt properly righteous on Thursday as I swung my leg over a bicycle on my way to work, leaving my big black car immobile in the driveway for the fourth day in a row. But pleasure alone would have made the trip worthwhile on such a fine blossomy day, with the tang of fresh-cut grass and the musty-sweet smell of earthworms and tulips hanging in the soft breeze that blew off the lake, the new leaves moistly unfolding and the CN Tower shimmering poetically in the haze . . .

At least that's what it looked like -- haze -- when I first noticed. But you never can tell in Toronto. So I turned on the television when I reached work to confirm a dark suspicion. And it was true: The first smog alert of 2004, a comely meteorologist reported, had occurred on the third warm day of spring. A new record.

High gas prices? Bring 'em on. I'll stay parked -- and, with luck, so will a lot of other people. Although it enriches none but freebooting sheiks and other Albertans, the gas-price spike does promise to correct the excess driving that has contributed so much to the environmental and public-health crisis that confronts Torontonians every summer. Traffic experts tell us that most of the trips that contribute to traffic jams, even in rush hours, are unnecessary or discretionary. And as any economist will attest, there's only one sure way to run those vehicles off the road: high prices.

Meanwhile, Torontonians still wait for evidence that governments will take equally effective steps, as they have all promised, to clear the air. Federal negligence permitted Peter Tabuns, former head of Greenpeace Canada and the New Democratic candidate in Beaches-East York, to greet the first smog day with a press release noting an old Liberal Red Book promise to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2000. Instead, according to Mr. Tabuns, Canada's emissions have gone up 18 per cent since the 1993 promise.

"People are dying needlessly and their health is being endangered because the federal government has failed to meet its goal of reducing emissions," he said.

Nobody has yet gone so far in criticizing the more newly minted Liberals of Queen's Park -- perhaps because they have had less time in which to break their promises. In fact, this week they actually kept one: pushing forward with their "Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt" -- a permanent, non-expandable girdle of park and farmland encasing the entire urban region from Niagara to Northumberland.

Given how notoriously difficult such instruments are to achieve and maintain in North America -- and how effective they can be in checking sprawl -- the greenbelt is one of the government's boldest outstanding promises to urban

Ontario.

After temporarily freezing development across a broad area in anticipation of the new legislation, this week the government released the first report from its Greenbelt Task Force, headed by Burlington Mayor Robert MacIsaac. Designed as the basis for public consultations on the upcoming legislation, the report is more an exercise in good intentions than in rule-making. But right now, its main function is to fire a warning shot across the bows of the land speculators who are the chief threat to the success of what the report calls a "permanent and sustainable legacy for current and future generations."

That much happened within hours of the MacIsaac report's release, when lawyer David Donnelly of Environmental Defence Canada thumped it onto the desk of the Ontario Municipal Board at a hearing in Richmond Hill. Called at the behest of developers eager to urbanize 607 hectares of land within the greenbelt study area before any legislation is passed, the Richmond Hill hearing currently represents the strongest challenge to the greenbelt.

The developers advance many arguments as to why they should be allowed to duck the impending legislation, but their most provocative point is that nobody expects it will ever happen.

"The Ontario Municipal Board should take judicial notice of the fact that not all election promises, even those contained within pre-election propaganda or information material, even those considered 'key election promises,' are kept once a government takes power," developer lawyer Ira Kagan wrote in his submissions, going on to list all the McGuinty government's broken promises -- including its failure to prevent developers from building more than 6,000 new homes on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Ergo, the lawyer argued, the board should ignore all the greenbelt talk and let his guys pave everything to the most distant horizon.

Luckily for Mr. Donnelly, the government released the MacIsaac report mere hours before the hearing was scheduled to begin, just in time to prove the seriousness of its intentions -- and to give clear direction to the often errant OMB.

"We told [the government] two months ago that they had to come out by May 14 or else we were going to have to pull out the bunny suits and say, 'You guys are not committed,' " Mr. Donnelly said. But as of now, he added, the environmentalists give the government full credit for pressing ahead. "They've done everything they said they would."

But dodging the threat of bunny-suited protesters will be easy compared to the upcoming struggles, when the government actually identifies privately owned land to be frozen permanently. That, as the Liberals discovered with their failure to fully prevent the earlier moraine development -- despite a glib election promise -- is a different game.

So bring it on. The greenbelt will never succeed until the government disabuses powerful speculators who have come to regard routine rezonings to be some kind of right. The current collision course is good news for all.


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