Caledon sidesteps public process, claims 2.2M square-foot warehouse in Greenbelt will be an ‘ecological benefit’
A number of reasons have been used by the Doug Ford PC government to justify avoiding legislated planning processes in issuing a record number of ministerial zoning orders, a veto that sidesteps environmental protections.
Ford and his Party soldiers claim these MZOs, which were hardly ever used prior to his election in 2018, are a way to jump start the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also, according to the PCs, a solution to the affordable housing crisis, and the answer to the need for more long-term care beds.
By using this rarely invoked planning mechanism (which Caledon is now trying to trigger for a 2.2-million square-foot warehouse in the Greenbelt) that circumvents rigorous environmental assessments, technical requirements and planning processes such as traffic studies, the PCs claim bureaucratic red-tape is avoided to get badly needed projects off the ground much faster.
The MZOs being handed out like candy under Ford erase legislated local approaches designed to ensure environmental protection, proper development to support projected population forecasts and adherence with provincial legislation that establishes long-term growth planning in Ontario.
Coordination between municipalities and Queen’s Park to ensure approved planning is supported with key infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and transportation options is part of the usual local planning process.
All of this has been thrown upside down by the PC government’s love affair with MZOs, which override many of the regulations and requirements meant to protect the environment and ensure proper planning.
Many municipalities and experts describe the new approach as a complete provincial takeover of local planning.
It also removes the public from the usual process that sees citizens decide the shape and feel of the places they call home. Instead, developers and other private interests are allowed to build where and how they see fit, to maximize their profits.
But one thing the PCs have not tried yet, is to convince the public that these MZOs can offer environmental benefits. Several developments triggered by MZOs have destroyed provincially significant wetlands.
Decades of urbanization have shown what the expansion of residential subdivisions and industrial warehouses have done to our natural world, turning vast vistas of open forest and wetlands into a concrete jungle contributing to a global biodiversity crisis as species decline at a disturbing rate.
The impacts on carbon emissions have contributed greatly to climate change, while Southern Ontario has become the flagship of habitat fragmentation in Canada, a significant problem exacerbated by growth that continues to expand the edges of municipal urban boundaries.
Trying to market urban development on greenfield or agricultural land as being good for the environment simply is not backed by science. Even the PCs have not tried to make such a claim, considering the destruction of natural features and the negative impacts on crucial wetlands and watersheds.
But this is exactly what council members in the Town of Caledon are doing.
To justify their request to Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark for the issuance of an MZO for a 2.2-million square-foot warehouse development on Dixie Road, one that will realign a tributary of the Humber River and encroach on the Greenbelt, they are claiming the project would provide a “net ecological benefit”.
Tribal Partners, the developer behind the warehouse project, claim that 10 to 30-metre buffers around woodlands and waterways on the site will protect them from the impacts of the warehouse activity, but the potential effects of air, noise and light pollution remain unknown, all of which can impact habitat for wildlife.
As cities push closer and closer to forests, those trees closest to the edge begin to die off, feeling the effects of urbanization first, like the towering firs at the frontline of an out-of-control forest fire. Some studies estimate the impacts of urbanization can extend 300 metres into adjacent habitats.
The site at 12035 Dixie Road consists of significant wildlife habitat for amphibians and waterfowl — as described under guidelines by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry — as well as habitat for the endangered redside dace, a small fish some aquatic biologists fear is facing extirpation in Ontario due to the ongoing threats from urbanization.
“We should always be striving for a net ecological benefit, which you can’t always achieve,” said Councillor Jennifer Innis during Tuesday’s planning and development committee meeting in Caledon. Innis is also chair of the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, the province’s largest conservation authority, and should be well aware of the effects urbanization has across Southern Ontario. “In this site it was possible and it’s been committed to… In fact, not only are they (the natural features) protected, they are enhanced. The environment will benefit from the work that will be done on this site.”
The site plan for 12035 Dixie Road shows just how close the large distribution centres will be to the realigned waterway and Greenbelt, listed as Environmental Area in the top left corner.
(Image from Town of Caledon)
It was a remarkable claim, especially from someone charged with conserving a major part of Southern Ontario’s delicate ecosystem, that a 2.2-million square-foot warehouse, its surrounding property and all the commercial trucks and pollution impacting the immediately surrounding Greenbelt will somehow be a net benefit for the environment.
When Innis became chair of the TRCA she faced accusations of being planted in the position by developers to further their interests.
A request for clarification sent to Innis, asking for further information to support her claim about environmental benefits of this project was not returned ahead of publication.
When asked for comment on the matter, the TRCA did not stray from the message of its Chair, repeating her dubious and seemingly misleading claims.
“The application proposes restoration of a low functioning stream corridor on the property that would increase the size and length of the natural heritage system and benefit fish habitat. The proposed restoration would be an ecological benefit,” said Michael Tolensky, the chief financial and operating officer with the TRCA. It’s unclear what actual environmental background he has. The conservation authority did not comment on the impacts of the proposed 2.2 million square foot e-commerce distribution centre on the site, the construction of which would create lasting impacts on the area, including massive volumes of commercial truck traffic.
To suggest an overall net benefit for the environment seems to fly in the face of even basic science.
In the studies commissioned by Tribal Partners it’s stated that the realignment of the existing stream running through the site, as well as widening of the Humber River tributaries will improve the habitat through the “the creation of more complex/high quality wetland vegetation communities.”
“The natural corridor design will offer significant improvements to aquatic and terrestrial habitat through an open channel with riffle-pool sequences and wetland features,” the study completed by WSP states.
However, none of this is certain, as any time natural features are modified, the outcomes are often unpredictable.
“All river relocation channels present an artificial discontinuity between natural sections of a river. This artificial channel seldom has the identical physical characteristics of the adjoining upstream and downstream reaches,” write geomorphologists Alissa Flatley, Ian Rutherfurd and Ross Hardie in the journal Water. “As such, river relocation channels can be considered as large-scale geomorphic experiments.”
The massive Canadian Tire distribution centre in Caledon is 1.5 million square feet. Tribal’s proposal for 12035 Dixie road is 2.2 million.
(Photo from broccolini.com)
Councillor Ian Sinclair was the lone dissenting voice on the motion from Mayor Allan Thompson to request the MZO, saying council was being rushed into a decision at the behest of the developer trying to skirt the proper planning procedures.
“It’s staggering to see what’s going on here,” he said. “It looks to me as if Tribal has had a fine time writing their own ticket here.”
Caledon resident Jenni Le Forestier criticized councillors for using the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic to ram through environmentally destructive developments with minimal consultation to engage the public.
“This is the third MZO that Caledon has used during the pandemic, when the public has been preoccupied with their health and safety. This council is demonstrating a lack of respect for its residents using MZOs under the cover of COVID,” she said.
Caledon councillors believe this project is all but inevitable, and many used that as justification for voting in favour of requesting an MZO the public had little time to comment on, and will not be able to appeal if approved.
“It’s inevitable that this is going to be rezoned. It’s inevitable that this is going to become employment,” said Councillor Christina Early. “I do believe this is the right direction we need to take for council.”
Ramming a giant warehouse in the Greenbelt hardly seems like a plan that is “inevitable”.
An adjacent proposal from Tribal Partners at 12862 Dixie Road will wrap around a number of pieces of the Greenbelt. It's unclear what the cumulative impacts (loss of habitat, impacts from contaminant runoff, noise, air and light pollution) of these two projects once completed will have on the local environment.
(Image from the Town of Caledon)
According to climate scientists, it is the exact opposite direction municipalities need to take if we wish to turn the tide on the climate crisis.
A recent study from Nature United identified 24 “pathways” which if fully implemented can help Canada reduce its natural GHG emissions by 11 percent — or 76 megatonnes — by 2030, or the amount equal to powering every single home in Canada for three years. The most effective of these pathways is the management of agricultural land. The majority of the Dixie Road site is Class 1 farmland, some of the most valuable for farming.
“Caledon declared a climate emergency. I have to ask why you’re not taking it seriously,” asked Le Forestier. Her question was not addressed by any council members. The Caledon resident, who ran as the Green Party candidate in the recent federal election, also asked about the potential development charge calculations for the site, the tax burden on Peel taxpayers who will have to pay for extending services to the site, neither of which were addressed by her elected representatives.
How many more developments are ‘inevitable’? A look at the land owned by the Mayfield East Landowners Group, which includes significant pieces of the Greenbelt. The Tribal Partners proposal is highlighted in orange.
(Image from Town of Caledon)
A complete disregard for public concerns has become an unfortunate recurrence in Caledon. On October 4, members of the public were shut out of a meeting to discuss critical planning matters related to the ongoing regional official plan review being conducted by the Region of Peel, including the GTA West Highway.
While the Region has opposed the project through a motion from regional council, Caledon continues to steadfastly push for the highway, using it as justification for a number of planning proposals, including the one at 12035 Dixie Road, despite the fact its future remains uncertain as the federal government continues to seek further information from the PC government through its environmental impact assessment process, which could kill the highway plan.
“Posting MZOs with days notice, special council meetings that go into private sessions, and public information meetings that mute the public, is in direct conflict with what council is supposed to reflect, which is the public interest,” Le Forestier said. “There is no justification for why this warehouse can’t go through the regular planning process. Where is the justification for the MZO, which cuts the public out with this most undemocratic planning tool?”
Mayor Thompson argued that Tribal could request the MZO directly from the province if it so chose, which could take control from the Town’s hands.
“I’d rather have the town council decide where we want to put our employment land versus the developer going to the province and they come back and tell us how to do this. I want to be in control of our own destiny here,” he said. His claim suggests any private entity can do whatever they want wherever they want, as if this was the wild west.
The lands in question were not included in the Region’s 2031 settlement area boundary, meaning they were projected not to be required for development until that time. However, Caledon has routinely shown disregard for the stance of the upper tier municipality, pushing back against not only this land designation, but its stance on the GTA West Highway. Earlier this month, the Town, in a brazen move that went against the direction of a democratically elected regional council, sent a letter from an outside law firm to the Region requesting it reverse the council decision against the project.
The push for 12035 Dixie Road is made more concerning by the fact Caledon staff, aside from the early consultation work for the proposal, have not even had a chance to analyze and make their own recommendations on the MZO request now approved by council members. Instead, elected officials are relying on information directly from the developer to support its decision making, as opposed to the taxpayer-funded staff inside Town Hall who are hired for that very purpose.
“Staff has not taken an in-depth review of any of that,” said Stephanie McVittie, the Acting Manager of Development Review Services for the Town.
“An MZO has to be underpinned by a proper planning process and a full report. There is no report from Caledon staff on this project,” said Councillor Sinclair. “It’s just astonishing to me that we can’t finish up the process here and put forward a planning report on this application.”
The development industry is known for attempting to spin the negative impacts of their developments on the environment. For example, developers have pushed for wetland “offsetting” rules, that allow them to destroy wetlands in one place, while “constructing” them in another, or paying for education programs to help teach the importance of preserving wetlands — a practice so backwards it’s almost farcical. Destroy wetlands and then teach children why that is bad.
Experts have said it is nearly impossible to recreate wetlands. These significant natural features are adapted for the space they occupy, helping to mitigate flooding, filter groundwater, and store carbon. Wetland offsetting efforts have seen little success in other jurisdictions.
“These programs have not worked well in the U.S. when they have been tried,” writes Tim Gray, the executive director of Environmental Defence. “In addition, such programs establish a precedent that simply paying a fee is an adequate compensation for destroying key elements of ecosystems that cannot be replaced.”
Similar logic is being applied by Tribal and its consultants in the case of 12035 Dixie Road. There is no guarantee that shifting and widening this Humber River tributary will provide any real benefit, and claiming a success before nature has a chance to take its course is incredibly short-sighted.
“Ideally, relocated river channels should eventually be indistinguishable from the natural counterparts up and downstream,” write Flatley, Rutherfurd and Hardie in Water. “This will only be possible where managers have good understanding of the geomorphology of the river system, and the mechanisms that control major channel adjustment, such as flooding, vegetation, and sediment supply.”
In the case of the Dixie Road site, WSP consultants have admitted there are gaps in their knowledge, particularly as it relates to the flows of the tributaries, which can be different throughout the year, “making it difficult to assess”, and only a limited number of site visits were conducted in the latter half of 2020.
Without a report completed by their own staff, Caledon councillors are relying only on information from developers to make their decision. It’s a level of influence that the former chair of the TRCA was concerned would compromise the integrity of the conservation authority, and its recommendations to local municipalities.
“We have people sitting around the (board) table there now who are there for development interests, not for the interests of the drinking water for future generations,” former TRCA chair Maria Augimeri told the Toronto Star in 2019. “That should not only worry people, that should frighten people.”
Augimeri was replaced by Innis in a contentious 11-10 vote, one that saw other board members lobbied by different organizations, including developers, trying to convince them to vote for Innis, according to reporting by the Star.
“I’ve been lobbied on this from everybody but the kitchen sink,” former board member Jim Karygiannis told the Star.
“I think the developers are looking at the TRCA and that’s why they wanted to get rid of Maria Augimeri,” he added. “Maria would stand in their way. Probably this was a play by the province and they wanted Maria out of the way. They probably want to attack the Green Belt.”
The PC government has made it clear, preserving the environment is not on its priority list. Premier Doug Ford was caught on video ahead of the 2018 provincial election promising a room full of developers he would open up the Greenbelt for development. He stripped conservation authorities of their power with Schedule 6; limiting the feedback and power they have in environmentally destructive applications; and his government is pushing a misleading agenda that the construction of new highways — like the GTA West Highway and the Bradford Bypass — will solve Ontario’s congestion issues, when there is reams of evidence to the contrary, and an alarming amount of science showing society needs to shift away from its reliance on the automobile in order to tackle the climate crisis.
Councillor Innis has strong ties with the PC party, having joined in her youth. She is also a vocal supporter of new development in Caledon, and until earlier this year, when public backlash forced many politicians to reverse course, was a vocal supporter of the GTA West Highway.
Innis did push back against the PC government’s ramming through of Schedule 6 in the form of an editorial published in several media outlets, noting the move would be damaging to the ability of conservation authorities to protect the environment. However, it’s unclear whether there was any further action on her part aside from the letter, which she has contradicted in her actions.
The motion from Allan Thompson was approved with only Councillor Sinclair voting against. Councillor Annette Groves was absent from the meeting due to an undisclosed emergency.
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