The sign outside the modest East Gwillimbury bungalow, Howards’ Farm, is a beloved beacon for local residents who make the pilgrimage to this concession road regularly for eggs, beef and pork raised as local as it gets — just a few metres from the front door.
Don Howard, 65, represents the fifth generation to herd livestock and till the fertile soil of the sprawling fields north of Newmarket. He grew up on the family homestead just two kilometres away.
His great-grandfather, Stephen Howard Jr., was the son of one of the first Quaker settlers in the area. Don’s 89-year-old mother still lives in the historic Howard farmhouse, with its original brick bake oven.
But likely not much longer. She sold the property to a developer eight years ago. She and her son have barely spoken since.
Howard and his wife, Deb, are still farming, but on borrowed time. He rents all the 300 acres (121 hectares) he tends near the house he has owned on the 2nd Concession for 40 years.
That farmland is now owned by developers. They are banking that urban sprawl will soon find a new home among the York Region towns and hamlets that form an island, slated for development, right in the heart of Ontario’s 10-year-old protected Greenbelt zone.
Minto Communities has owned land within that island for more than seven years. Earlier this month, it launched sales for the first phase of its new Queen’s Landing residential project on a field just up the 2nd Concession from Don Howard’s place. More than 1,300 keen buyers lined the road.
Some spent two nights sleeping in their cars, desperate to be first in line for 90 affordable detached houses and townhomes in what will eventually be a 660-residence community, just a 50-minute GO Train commute from downtown Toronto.
While Minto sales staff erected a tent and brought in heaters, coffee and doughnuts to keep the crowd comfortable during one of the coldest days of the year, Howard and his wife watched the “circus” — and their future — flash before their eyes.
“Time’s ticking, for sure,” he says. “I think farmers here accept that their days are numbered, but we’re going to have to work with these people when they move in, until we get pushed out ourselves by all the crap of having people living so close.”
Already the Howards have felt the pressure of urban expansion — drivers edging impatiently behind their tractor, couples walking dogs through their fields.
East Gwillimbury and other rural areas like it that are not part of the Greenbelt could soon prove to be an unlikely ground zero in a months-long discussion, about to kick off across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, of both existing and future growth in this booming region of the province.
Over the next few weeks, the Ontario government will hold a series of public meetings in towns and cities across Canada’s most populated and fastest-growing area, where the population stood at 8.7 million in 2011 but is projected to hit almost 13.5 million by 2041.
Population growth pressuring the Greenbelt
The meetings are all part of a critical and combined review of the 10-year-old Greenbelt Plan and Places to Grow legislation, as well as the Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment plans aimed at protecting sensitive environmental and agricultural areas from encroaching development.
Already the battle lines are drawn.
Environmental and grassroots groups like Food & Water First, the David Suzuki Foundation and a coalition of councillors, Municipal Leaders for the Greenbelt, are calling for stronger protections and even expansion of the more than 1.8-million-acre (728,400-hectare) Greenbelt, which rings the GTA from Niagara in the west to Northumberland County in the east and Lake Simcoe to the north.
There are also calls to make some or all 113,000 acres of so-called Whitebelt — lands between the urbanized edges of the GTA and the Greenbelt — into a “food belt” so that farmland and future food production are better buffered from the big city.
Food and Water First, which grew out of the grassroots movement that in 2012 helped stop the Melancthon mega-quarry and the destruction of 2,300 acres of prime farmland near Orangeville, now has a new mission.
It’s proposing a 10-year moratorium on rezoning any more prime Class 1 farmland — like that owned by developers in East Gwillimbury — for residential expansion, “to let everyone breathe and make sure we’re doing the right things,” says Carl Cosack, a founder of the group and an Orangeville-area rancher.
“I expect people will engage in this conversation like they never have before,” adds Cosack of the upcoming planning review. “We’re just learning through social media that what we have to say does matter, and that if we engage in a good conversation we can move the sticks.
“We need to really look at how planning has been playing out already and develop better planning directives so we have the ability to grow the food that Ontarians need.”
But the review will be much bigger — and much more political — than that. There are expected to be calls for the appointment of a regional planning czar to better integrate planning decisions for the good of the whole Golden Horseshoe.
There will be lots of talk about the “unintended consequences” of the existing legislation: the leapfrogging of development over the Greenbelt into small communities often ill-equipped to deal with rapid growth; the dramatic shift to condo construction at the expense of houses; the escalating price — a record average of $705,813 — for a newly built house in the GTA.
“This is the connect-the-dots conversation we need to have with the government and the municipalities and everyone who wants to talk about growth,” says Joe Vaccaro, CEO of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association and an executive with the Building Industry and Land Development Association.
“We’re all in favour of the Greenbelt and the growth plan and accommodating the additional millions of people the province says are coming here over the next few decades. But as you do that math you have to ask: where are we going to put all of those people? Not all of them are going to live in condos.”
In fact, there needs to be some creative new model of intensification that goes beyond what’s now become largely just two extremes of new housing — suburban detached homes and taller, small condos, says Cherise Burda, regional director of the non-profit Pembina Institute, which is preparing a presentation for the review.
Pembina is now looking at ideas ranging from tax incentives to development-fee discounts that might spur developers to build more affordable choices, such as stacked townhouses and mid-rise condo buildings better suited to families.
Critical to the whole question of how — and exactly where — the region grows in the next few decades is Metrolinx’s $50-billion Big Move plan for expanding and better integrating GO and municipal transit systems across the region. It isn’t officially part of these public discussions.
“I think there is an opportunity in this review to focus on how to use our existing infrastructure and transit to better shape our region instead of continuing to grow at the outer edges,” where costly roads, schools and hospitals have to be added, says Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the non-profit think-tank the Neptis Foundation.
“We didn’t have the Big Move at the time of the growth plan. It provides an opportunity to be more strategic in how and where growth is allocated. We’re going to effectively have subways running to the suburbs (under a $10 billion-plus plan to electrify and improve GO Train service in the next decade), so why are we still focusing growth on the edges and not taking that population growth and allocating it to existing areas?”
There will be lots of debate and data — most of it, apparently, from non-governmental organizations rather than the province itself — about what’s working and what’s not, nine years into the growth plan.
“What we’ve tended to see is business-as-usual planning,” says University of Toronto professor Philippa Campsie, who has co-authored a number of Neptis reports raising concerns about how the growth plan is being implemented in some communities.
Too many municipalities are still approving subdivisions on the outskirts of the regions — requiring costly new services — rather than making it a priority to fill in unused and underutilized lands closer to already existing services, she notes.
Developers are expected to stress, yet again, that they are running out of land to build all the housing needed to accommodate population growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The Minto sales show, if nothing else, that there is in fact far more demand for traditional family homes than there is supply right now.
Neptis says there is more than enough vacant land to last to 2041 and beyond — it has identified 264,000 acres approved or designated for development — arguing there is no pressing need to expand urban borders any closer to the Greenbelt and Whitebelt lands.
The problem, stresses Joe Vaccaro of the Homebuilders’ Association, is much of it is tied up by “government inertia” — everything from a lack of sewers, roads and other infrastructure to service the sites, to lengthy and costly Ontario Municipal Board appeals over whether proposed developments can even go ahead.
Pratiti Ahrie and her husband, Vikas, know there is a need for balance — that not every farmer’s field can be paved over for subdivisions.
But they are stark examples of how housing affordability, and even intensification, is actually pushing some families to the outer limits.
They have been living in an apartment at Kennedy Rd. and Hwy. 401 in Scarborough since their 5-year-old daughter, Arya, was born. But they long for the open spaces where they grew up — Pratiti in what was, at the time, the brand new suburbs of Richmond Hill, Vikas in a rural area of India.
“We wanted to be free of all the big buildings, the busy subway, the chaos and the traffic,” says Pratiti, 32.
During a visit to a friend’s Newmarket farm, the couple discovered signs for Minto’s Queen’s Landing, located far enough away from the recently extended Hwy. 404 to feel like country, but close enough to the East Gwillimbury GO Train station to get downtown, where Vikas is studying to be a programmer analyst at George Brown College and Pratiti works for a company that does employee background checks.
Over the course of three months, the anxious first-time buyers explored the area by car and tested the train at rush hour. When the first 90 homes went on sale this month, right across from a bucolic farm not yet owned by a developer, Vikas realized competition was going to be fierce.
Some 7,500 people had pre-registered to indicate their interest for townhouses and detached homes on 36- and 43-foot lots, starting in the low $300,000s. Vikas called his wife on a Thursday afternoon to say he was going to sleep in the car until sales opened on Saturday.
By the time she arrived that evening with clothes, sleeping bags and food, others had arrived, too, and Vikas was getting an early start meeting his new neighbours. On the Saturday, they snagged a 2,150-square-foot townhouse on a 35-by-91 foot lot for $481,000, with construction to start next year.
“I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Amanda Wilson Watkins, vice-president of marketing and sales for Minto Communities. “We could see people on social media saying they were going to get in line.”
Some 7,000 homes are planned for the surrounding area over time as developers such as Minto come to see it as ripe for development now that the 404 extension is open, the GO Train station is nearby and the York-Durham sewer extension is being pushed north through East Gwillimbury.
“It’s countryside,” says Wilson Watkins. “It’s not been developed. This is pent-up demand we’re seeing because of that.
“There is still a very strong appetite for people to have traditional family homes.”
The Greenbelt is one of the world’s largest protected swaths of green space, forests, wetlands and watersheds. Legislation creating the more than 1.8-million-acre area was passed by the Dalton McGuinty government on Feb. 28, 2005, with provision for a 10-year review.
As of 2011, it was home to 5,500 farms and more than half of Ontario’s prime Class 1 farmland, much of it in the fertile Holland Marsh area.
It contains just 7 per cent of all Ontario farmland but accounts for 55 per cent of the province’s fruit production and 13 per cent of its vegetable crops, according to the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation.
Beef, dairy and hog operations have been in decline since 2001, going down faster than in the rest of the province. As of 2014, there had been a 43-per-cent decline in dairy farms, a 31-per-cent drop in beef farms and a 62-per-cent drop in pig farms, according to the foundation.
The David Suzuki Foundation has called the Greenbelt “a massive carbon storehouse,” with some $4.5 billion in environmental benefits. Its forests and wetlands combined store enough tonnes of carbon to offset the annual emissions of 33 million cars and trucks.
The program was created in 2006 with the aim of reining in urban sprawl, reducing dependence on the car, revitalizing downtowns and creating more walkable, compact neighbourhoods within easy reach of transit.
Places to Grow established a planning framework and set boundaries, region by region, for accommodating what’s expected to be some 13.5 million people living in the Greater Golden Horseshoe by 2041. It called for a combination of higher-density redevelopment on existing urbanized land — as has happened with condo and infill construction in Toronto — and set goals of 50 people and jobs combined per hectare for any new so-called greenfield development, largely in the more suburban regions of the GTA.
There’s considerable debate about what’s working and what’s not but surprisingly little hard data, so far at least, even from the provincial government.