What you need to know: Ontario’s plan to grow the size of the Greenbelt

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In February 2021, the Province of Ontario announced its plan to grow the size of the Greenbelt. The Greenbelt Plan and A Place to Grow: Growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe work together to provide a framework for where and how growth should be accommodated in Southern Ontario.

On February 28, 2005, the Greenbelt Act, 2005 was passed by the Ontario government and protects nearly two million acres of farmland and environmentally sensitive areas. Over the past 15 years, the Ontario government has worked to expand the protections of the Greenbelt. In 2017, the Greenbelt protections were extended to 21 major urban river valleys and 7 coastal wetlands.

The proposal

The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) is seeking to grow the size, and further enhance the quality of the Greenbelt. MMAH identified two areas of priority, being:

  1. A study area of land focused on the Paris Galt Moraine, which is home to critical groundwater resources
  2. Ideas for adding, expanding and further protecting Urban River Valleys

Paris Galt Moraine

The Paris Galt Moraine is an important feature that runs roughly from Caledon in the northeast to Brantford in the southwest. It is an area of rolling, hilly terrain that is the headwaters for many rivers and streams. Comprised of sand and gravel deposits, it helps to protect and recharge the groundwater aquifers that provide the basis for a broad range of needs, including drinking water supply for many communities, sustaining local ecosystems, and growth and economic management. Moraines allow rain and snowmelt to soak into the ground more rapidly and in much greater amounts than the surrounding, less permeable areas. This provides a reliable, slowly changing supply of water called baseflow to rivers and streams.

Urban River Valleys

The province is also proposing to apply the Urban River Valley designation to publicly owned lands in river valleys. The designation within the Greenbelt Plan is intended to integrate the Greenbelt into urban areas that were not part of the Greenbelt’s initial boundaries. The policy would only apply to publicly owned lands. These are often lands designated in municipal official plans as parks, open space, recreation, conservation and/ or environmental protection. There are currently 21 Urban River Valleys and associated coastal wetlands included in the Greenbelt.

Principles for growing the Greenbelt expansions

The province identified six principles that will be followed for the expansion of the Greenbelt:

  1. No consideration of removal requests or land exchanges
    • This proposal is about growing the size and quality of the Greenbelt and the province indicated that it will not consider the removal of any lands from the Greenbelt
  2. No consideration of policy changes
    • Any potential expansions will be based on existing policies. The province will not reduce existing protections in the Greenbelt
  3. Supports the Greenbelt Plan objectives, vision, and goals
    • Lands to be considered for addition must support the Greenbelt Plan’s objectives, vision and goals of providing permanent protection to the agricultural land base and the ecological and hydrological features, areas and functions and providing for the inclusion of publicly owned lands in urban river valleys.
  4. Follows the existing amendment process for the Greenbelt Plan
    • The Greenbelt Act, 2005 sets out the legislated public process that will apply to any proposed Greenbelt Plan amendments. This includes requiring consultation with affected public bodies such as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Niagara Escarpment Commission and the Greenbelt Council, municipalities in the Greenbelt area, with the general public and engagement with Indigenous communities. This would also include ensuring that any proposed amendment does not reduce the total land area within the Greenbelt Plan.
  5. Connects physically and/or functionally to the current Greenbelt
    • The Greenbelt is meant to be a continuous broad band of permanently protected land. Any expansions shall build upon the systems approach of the Greenbelt Plan and should be directly connected to or have a strong functional connection through the Greenbelt’s natural heritage, water resource or agricultural systems so not to create unconnected islands of Greenbelt land.
  6. Considers impacts on existing provincial priorities
    • Expansions to the Greenbelt must consider their effects on other key provincial priorities outlined in the Provincial Policy Statement and A Place to Grow.

Feedback received from the public and municipalities

The Environmental Registry of Ontario’s comment period for this proposal closed on April 19, 2021.

Public comment from environmental groups have advocated for a more ambitious approach to protecting valuable land and water resources in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Municipalities throughout Southern Ontario have also been asked to provide feedback to the Provincial Consultation on Growing the Size of the Greenbelt. A number of municipalities have provided comments, ranging from concerns that further expansion of the Greenbelt into their municipality may result in economic hardship, to comments that more substantive methods of growing the size of the Greenbelt are needed, such as a watershed-based approach to identifying areas for potential inclusion. Municipalities have also expressed concern that the plan aims to protect ‘already protected’ areas, which are protected by the municipality’s Official Plan.

Dentons will continue to assess the outcome of Ontario’s Plan to Grow the Size of the Greenbelt and how the Province responds to the feedback that has been received.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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