Peel residents fearing more sprawl want to pause crucial decision around future growth – PCs said ‘no’
Faces are split into static squares, frozen or buffering as the information highway is gridlocked by a million similar video calls. Hands seem to convey an animated point but no words are tumbling out from the moving lips. A passionate point is shared with a group of co-workers who can’t hear it.
The ritual of virtual engagement has revealed its shortcomings. It’s no different for local government. Technology has kept us provisionally connected but our reliance on it during the pandemic is proving to be a stumbling block for democracy.
Frustrated with the limitations of virtual council meetings, a group of residents and advocates in Peel is asking the Region to pause a key planning process ahead of a 2022 deadline established by the Province. Letters and video presentations have called on councillors to stop critical population planning, a process of mapping out where new homes will be built until the year 2051.
The residents asking for a moment of reflection say COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings have made crucial dialogue near impossible.
Kathleen Moleski is one of several members of the public who has presented to the Region. (Image from YouTube and the Region of Peel)
“Constituents cannot be properly consulted given COVID restrictions,” Dr. Carol Aziz, a Mississauga resident, wrote in an email to councillors on April 27. “Many residents are stressed, lacking the time or do not have internet access or the expertise to use Zoom software in order to delegate. Critical decisions which will impact Peel Region for the next 30 years should not be made now while in-person consultation is impossible and so many of us are overwhelmed.”
The issues councillors in Peel have to consider are vast. Under the stewardship of Mississauga Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish, the Region has set up the Planning and Growth Management Committee to work through the mountain of byzantine paperwork.
At the heart of the process is a demand from Queen’s Park that municipalities around Ontario decide where new residents will be housed out to 2051. Population estimates have assigned some 700,000 new residents to the Region of Peel across the next 30 years. With current estimates, Caledon will begin the next half-century with 300,000 residents, more than triple its current number, Brampton will be home to 985,000 residents and Mississauga 995,000.
This planning process involves estimating how many homes will be needed to accommodate these newcomers and where they will be built. The Region also has to help determine if they will be housed in single-family homes, apartments/condos or townhouses. There are no laws in Canada compelling residents to live in a particular area or type of home, making the estimates a best guess, not prophecy. But the market adage of ‘if you build it, they will come’ has generally been a successful way to dictate settlement and housing patterns through a combination of zoning laws and planning approvals.
The deadline to get everything in order is July 2022.
The Region of Peel will grow significantly across the next 30 years. (Image from the Region of Peel)
The process started in Peel years ago. The Region began to review its Official Plan in 2013, including how it would allocate population, and has held a series of meetings both in person and virtually since then.
Regional staff say more than 50 engagement events have been held and that they go “above and beyond” the public consultation minimums set out in the province’s Planning Act. More than 20 open house events for over 750 residents have taken place, alongside 25 pop-ups that reached more than 1,500 community members from 2013.
After years of engagement, Peel hit a snag – Ontario changed the population planning rules during the summer of 2020. An amendment to the Growth Plan asked municipalities to plot a decade further ahead, all the way out to 2051.
The previous Liberal government also increased density requirements to curb decades of sprawl and prevent the urban boundary in the GTA from continuing to creep outward. The current PC government under Premier Doug Ford has tried to reverse the impact of the legislation by making exceptions for development that could encroach beyond current urban boundaries, even into the Greenbelt, if it has economic and business advantages.
Critics have challenged the moves, citing a return to sprawl and the give-over to the subdivision development industry.
Consultations on the new timeline and rules have been held entirely online. Some residents have told their councillors this isn’t fair.
“We must not lock in sprawl until 2051,” Rahul Mehta, a Mississauga resident and climate campaigner, said in a separate email to councillors in April. Peel’s current plan will reduce the number of single-detached family homes, but will not stop building them on new land altogether. Current draft projections suggest singles and semis will move from making up 60 percent of all units in Peel in 2021 to 48 percent by 2051. Apartments will jump from 25 to 34 percent of the total housing stock.
The number of single-detached family homes will drop in Peel over the next 30 years. (Image from Region of Peel)
“Critical decisions which will impact Peel Region for the next 30 years should not be made now while in-person consultation is impossible and so many of us are utterly overwhelmed,” Mehta wrote.
So far councillors have listened to presentations, read letters and indicated the decision is out of their hands.
A June 3 report from staff at the Region of Peel argued against pausing population decisions, citing significant engagement before the pandemic and success of virtual formats. It noted that while Hamilton and Halton (both held up as examples by residents) have asked to pause the process, technical work is continuing as they wait for a response from Queen’s Park. “The virtual format also allowed individuals to review and submit comments at a time most convenient to them and had a much greater window to review materials”, staff wrote.
Delaying the process would be a gamble and does not come with the Province’s blessing. A letter from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said there would be no extensions to the process and indicated the Province would take over the work for municipalities that fail to meet the deadline.
“The Places to Grow Act, 2005, provides significant powers for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to intervene in municipal official plans in the event of nonconformity with A Place to Grow policies,” Minister Steve Clark wrote. “This includes failing to plan for all forecasted growth to the required horizon, by the conformity deadline of July 1, 2022.”
Clark’s office shared a short response with The Pointer to questions asking if the process could be paused to improve public feedback. “Years of inaction by the Liberal government has put significant pressure on Ontario’s housing system,” Krystle Caputo, Clark’s director of communications, wrote in an email. “Housing supply and demand are completely out of step as home prices continue to rise, making the dream of homeownership more and more unattainable.”
Steve Clark has already told Peel it can’t delay its long-term planning timelines. (Image from Government of Ontario)
The PC line, adopted by Clark, is not supported by planning work done by the Province, land-use experts, academics and business organizations over the previous decade-and-a-half. Building more sprawling subdivisions as a response to demand for housing was seen as an ill-conceived idea pushed by single-family home builders that Ford pledged his support to, promising them during the 2018 election campaign that if successful he would open up the protected Greenbelt for development.
Numerous studies have shown demand can be filled within the existing urban boundary and by enacting policies that would lead to more dense housing, instead of the sprawling subdivisions many builders continue to push.
In Peel, the already complicated issue is made even more complex because Caledon officials including its Mayor, Allan Thompson, and one of its most vocal councillors, Jennifer Innis, have pushed for more subdivision development instead of compact forms of growth. Meanwhile, Mississauga council members around the regional table, pushing for smart growth, which will be much less of a burden on taxpayers, have confronted their northern counterparts who seem to be stuck in the sprawling past.
The deadline for Peel to get its plan in order technically falls after the next provincial election, meaning the Region could risk defying the rules in the hope of a new administration. If voters around Ontario return another Progressive Conservative majority in 2022, the delay could leave Peel’s planning out of its hands.
“There is no reason to assume that Minister Clark will be in a position to do anything after the election,” Phil Pothen, Ontario environmental program manager for climate organization Environmental Defence, told The Pointer. He says digital debate is less productive than in-person engagement.
New population consultations should “be conducted using in-person methods that actually allow for two-way discussions and for some sort of consensus to develop among members of the public,” he said.
Despite running consultations on its planning review for more than seven years, there are just over 700 names on the Region’s official plan review mailing list. Over the years, 101 people have asked to be removed from the list over time. Of the 700-plus individuals on the mailing list, roughly half are residents. A further 240 are companies, 40 are community organizations, just under 20 are provincial staff and 15 are municipal or federal employees.
Staff have also consulted with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Huron-Wendat First Nation, Six Nations of the Grand River and Metis Nation of Ontario.
“We’ve got 1.5 million people in the region, so I don’t think we’re reaching enough people,” Parrish commented at an April meeting of the Growth and Planning Committee.
Construction of apartments in downtown Mississauga is a key part of the Region’s plan to grow. (Image from Isaac Callan/The Pointer)
Several structural barriers made resident engagement challenging in the past. Council meetings are held during the day when most are at work, making it easier for the retired or flexibly employed to get their views across. People also had to travel to City Hall to participate, something easier for those who own their own car or live close to the downtown.
Pandemic restrictions addressed some of these shortcomings and then created new issues of their own. Residents were able to take part in meetings from home, save on parking and spend less time away from work or childcare to share their concerns with councillors. But new issues included: unstable internet connections; a lack of access to technology; the need for a reasonable level of computer literacy; and other technical realities. Perhaps the biggest barrier was the inability to organize in ways that are inspired by physical connection and the gathering of like-minded people who have traditionally united behind common causes.
Otherwise disinterested council members can be motivated to act by a chamber filled with hundreds of passionate voters.
It’s hard to do this due to rules against physical gathering that have negated the power of the people.
Some of the dynamics behind in-person consultations were imperfect and so are virtual meetings. The concern for residents who want Peel to defy the Province and hit pause on future growth planning is that the old system was widely understood. It allowed for the kind of two-way conversation necessary to boost engagement and understanding, advocates say.
At a traditional public information session, large boards are erected and residents engage directly with the visual and written information. Technical staff and experts are on hand to answer questions and discuss topics. It’s essentially a face-to-face curation of current planning decisions.
By contrast, virtual engagement sessions allow residents more options to record their views. They can use online forms, email or letters, but learning about the issues themselves is more onerous. It means staring at a screen and sitting through hours of fragmented videos.
Residents at a public engagement for Lakeview Village in Mississauga before the pandemic. (Image from The Pointer files/Rahul Gupta)
“There has been a lot of consultation, not just last year, but up to last year as well,” Caledon Mayor Thompson told his committee colleagues in April, not surprisingly pushing to prevent further dialogue. “We’ve done a poor job really telling our story on that.”
If the consultation is extended, residents could take part in meetings virtually or head to City Hall to look elected officials in the eye and ask questions of bureaucrats. But it doesn’t seem residents or advocates hoping for more time will get their wish.
As further consultations roll out, and Peel moves toward a final decision in 2022, residents will be forced to manage more impactful engagement on the very future of their community after the pandemic is finally behind us, unless the PC government pushes back its looming deadline.
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