Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area activists fighting Ford government’s urban sprawl plans

Paul Webster

Sun., March 28, 2021

 The Hamilton Spectator

With the fate of much of Hamilton’s last nearby farmlands uncertain, the outcome of Monday’s Hamilton Council meeting weighs heavily on Nancy Hurst.

From her home on Hamilton’s outskirts, she can walk out into open countryside. But she fears that may soon be impossible. “I’m concerned city planners intend to hand much of Hamilton’s last nearby farmlands to property developers,” Hurst explains.

Driven by this fear, in recent months Hurst, who works in Hamilton as an educational assistant, has morphed into something of an old-fashioned, unpaid citizen activist.

“Thanks to the pandemic,” she explains, “I’ve had a lot more time to research why the province and city hall want more sprawl, and to mobilize with other ordinary people like me who want to stop it.”

To propel her citizens’ campaign, Hurst joined a Facebook website that co-ordinates GTA-wide opposition to provincial plans to unleash more urban sprawl by building the proposed 413 superhighway.

That led Hurst to make connections with other like-minded citizen activists who’ve helped councillors from Halton, Peel, Mississauga, and Vaughan vote against the proposed Highway 413, and the urban sprawl associated with it.

In February, Hurst launched a Facebook site of her own titled “Stop Sprawl Ham Ont.” At last count, this has attracted 250 members.

“Because of the pandemic, face-to-face public consultations regarding sprawl have been abandoned by planning officials in Hamilton,” Hurst explains, “as well as in Halton, Caledon, Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan and King City. But technology is helping us meet to informally discuss. I’m hearing that Hamiltonians want our nearby farmlands protected, so we can create a new foodbelt around the city.”

On Monday, Hurst is taking this message to City Council in support of a motion tabled by Brad Clark, Councillor for Ward 10, that calls for a pause on decision-making as the city’s chief planner, Steve Robichaud, proposes that Council rezone 1340 hectares, much of which consists of farmland.

Robichaud wants this rezoned for industrial use, and for housing — much of which he says will be single family houses — to meet the market demands of property developers, and the province.

Clark’s motion to pause and reconsider Robichaud’s recommendations resembles a successfully-adopted Feb. 17 motion tabled by Halton Regional Councillor Jane Fogal that froze Halton land use decisions until face-to-face post-pandemic public consultations can restart.

Halton’s decision came while the Ford government demands that municipal and regional planners produce 30 year land use plans at a time when legally-mandated public consultations have been curtailed by the pandemic.

“The public deserves a more robust consultation program that includes in-person engagement,” says Fogal about Halton’s decision. “Let’s discuss these ultraimportant land use plans when it’s possible to gather again.”

Fogal’s motion to endorse citizen activists’ call for a pause on land use decision-making is attracting considerable interest right across the GTAH.

In Peel, citizen activists have reminded Regional Councillor Carolyn Parrish, who chairs the region’s planning committee, to consider their worries about the province’s demand that municipal boundaries be expanded without normal public consultations.

“We have been copied on Hamilton’s and Halton’s motions,” she explained in an email message. “We will be keeping an eye on the participation levels at virtual public meetings and remain flexible on this,” she added before noting that the quality of virtual meetings never matches in-person meetings. “On a 1 to 10 scale, in-person is a 10, and virtual a 2.”

In Vaughan, concerned citizens have persuaded municipal councillor Marilyn Iafrate to champion their opposition to Highway 413, and to further sprawl.

“The Region of York has been discussing population numbers and growth plans that, from what I have heard, will require Vaughan to take farmland and convert it to development,” she said in an email. “I am hugely concerned that they will force us to meet unrealistic and unsupported population numbers that will actually be beneficial to them to continue supporting the 413.”

In Niagara, Regional Councillor Diana Huson, who chairs the region’s planning committee, opposes further encroachment on agricultural lands. She anticipates debate on the topic will be “contentious” in the months ahead.

In Hamilton, chief planner Steve Robichaud acknowledges that Council “could adopt a zero boundary growth option.” But he says the province demands new swaths of lands be rezoned for residential and industrial developments.

At Queen’s Park, Steve Clark, the minister responsible for forcing regional and municipal governments to craft plans for a wave of urban sprawl across the province’s dwindling prime farmland, declined an interview request.

Clark also declined to answer written questions solicited by his spokesperson, Conrad Spezowka, about the lack of public consultations.

In an email statement, Spezowka instead said “we will continue working with municipalities and the public on how we grow and how we protect what matters.”

Paul Webster is a Toronto-based freelance writer