While many city folk heaved a sigh of relief when the province moved to protect fast-disappearing rural vistas on the Oak Ridges Moraine and greenbelt, they probably didn't realize how many stupid planning decisions were still in the offing.
The latest concerns York Region's bid to expand the Big Pipe sewer system on 19th Avenue in Richmond Hill. While officials claim the sewer's location will not predetermine where development happens, enviro groups suspect the pipe will facilitate a rash of homebuilding on a swathe of untouched farmland on the Oak Ridges Moraine between Yonge and Leslie.
Fortunately, the route of the pipe is not a done deal. The provincial ministry of the environment must first conclude that the region, which is set to submit its plans next week, has properly carried out its mandated peer review process. Critics aren't holding their breath. "The whole process (of selecting a route) has been a sham from the start," says Carrie Hoffelner of Richmond Hill ACT Now!
Indeed, residents were infuriated by the region's selection of Craig Mather as the head of the peer review team. As the former CAO of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, his credentials were not the issue. Rather, his appointment may involve a conflict of interest, since his wife, Nancy Mather, is a vice-president with Stantec Consulting. Mather has been hired by Metrus Developments Inc. to draw up the master environmental plan for Gormley West, part of the area that activists are worried about. But she is also doing consulting work on a servicing plan - yes, servicing means sewer pipes - for another developer along 19th Avenue.
Residents' concerns were reinforced when Craig Mather chose Dr. Ken Howard to review the region's hydrogeological data. Howard was an expert witness hired by the development industry to testify at the OMB hearing in 2000 that decided the fate of 10,000 homes on the moraine.
Craig Mather could not be reached for comment, nor would Nancy Mather provide me with a number where he could be reached. But she says, "The notion of a conflict of interest is ludicrous. My husband only appoints the technical staff. He doesn't review the data himself."
Critics contend that the pipe will pave the way for sprawl north of 19th for the next 30 years. One would be hard-pressed to find a case where the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) has turned down residential development in an area where sewer capacity was already present. Fuelling concerns is the fact Metrus's 1,450-home project for Gormley West is currently before the OMB. (The company is co-owned by development heavy Fred DeGasperis.)
At a public meeting last November, Richmond Hill opposed the project, stating that the development was a decade premature because of a lack of infrastructure in the area. The town ordered its lawyer to file a motion to reject the development. But within two weeks its position had completely changed. The town, the region and Metrus are now working on a secondary plan for Gormley West lands.
Bruce Fisher, a project manager with Metrus, brushes aside any suggestion that the location of the pipe and the development of the West Gormley lands are connected. "Those lands have already been approved for development by the province. They are a done deal. The OMB hearing is just to work out the details."
Fisher is referring to the Gormley lands' designation as a "settlement" area under the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act. Despite the provincial designation, though, there is nothing in the act to prevent Richmond Hill from stopping the development.
It would appear, however, that development interests are more important in Richmond Hill than sound planning. The province must step in to protect the integrity of the Oak Ridges Moraine Act.