The greenbelt may be a surprising achievement for the Liberals, but it's going to run environmentalists ragged for years to come. That's because of what some are now calling the black belt.
Here's what's at stake: The ambitious greenbelt plan freezes development for 10 years in a 1.175-million-acre area stretching from Rice Lake to Tobermory at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, and from the shores of Lake Simcoe to the Niagara fruit belt.
But while they're tough on land speculators in St. Catharines and small towns on the Niagara Escarpment and around Lake Simcoe, the Libs don't seem to have the stomach for confrontations with big cities and large-scale developers.
Enter the black belt, the land between the proposed greenbelt and the current urban zoning limits. The phrase, coined by conservationist farmer Peter Grandoni from Niagara Falls, refers to an unprotected strip of farmland south of the Oak Ridges Moraine, west of Oshawa and east of the Niagara Escarpment between Orangeville and Hamilton. It's on this contested terrain that conservationists will hone their anti-sprawl organizing skills.
This 200-square-mile swath, which includes four additions to Ontario's expressway network, the much fought Red Hill being one, surrounds Toronto, Hamilton, Brampton, Richmond Hill, Barrie, Oshawa, Pickering, Hamilton, Whitby, Ajax, Markham, Vaughan and Caledon. This is where developers will now ruthlessly strip away trees to liberate themselves from planning controls. No forest, no questions.
Few have considered the environmental implications of developing the black belt. What, for instance, will be the impact on the Credit River if more of its critical recharge area is lost to cement?
But the non-frozen buffer around Toronto is the most frightening. As the Neptis Foundation makes clear, the Liberal plan leaves far too much room for cities to expand. (St. Catharines is the only city larger than 100,000 that has been told it cannot extend its zoning boundaries.)
If T.O. actually balloons into the area set aside for it by the province, urban densities would certainly be reduced below their current levels. The consequence would be new expressways, more malls and more smog, making Toronto actually less eco-friendly than it was before the passage of the vaunted Greenbelt Act.
It's going to be an unsettling 10 years, so concerned citizens will be wise to watch the bulldozers like hawks.