Don't Look Up—Peel’s growth plan is not ‘balanced’, it’s a gift to developers that threatens the natural world
Feature image Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer

Don't Look Up—Peel’s growth plan is not ‘balanced’, it’s a gift to developers that threatens the natural world


Adam McKay’s 2021 film Don’t Look Up is a Hollywood send-up of our tragically distracted society. It rushes at our human weakness from the start.

Toward the plot setting early scene two feverish scientists sit nervously right outside the Oval Office sweating over how to tell the all-powerful American president the planet has six months before a comet bursts through the atmosphere.

The phrase ‘Earth-shattering’ will no longer be an overused exaggeration.

In six months, what disaster movies call an ‘extinction-level event’ will arrive.

But Don’t Look Up is not a disaster movie.

It operates between the space of governments, big business and mass media, relentlessly lampooning the absurdity of chasing the high life (oblivious to all else) on a planet that’s about to explode.

Peel’s elected officials, if they haven't already, should watch the film.

In their own justification for burying their head in the sand, Regional councillors would like residents to believe they are currently handcuffed by the Province, forced to open up nearly 11,000 acres of farmland and greenspace for future development.

They would like the citizens who give them power to represent them to believe after years of consultation and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, the plan to guide the region’s growth that has been pushed out the back end of Peel’s bloated bureaucracy is a “balanced approach” that weighs the need to destroy existing natural features and prime farmland, while simultaneously considering all the risks around flooding, reduced air quality, harm to Peel’s watershed, unavoidable congestion and the crippling costs that sprawl creates for property tax payers. 

Councillors would also like residents to believe they took their input to heart and infused it into the final planning document. Anyone who has glanced at the just approved 2022 Official Plan would be hard pressed to find it.

It cements Peel’s growth strategy out to 2051, an unprecedented 30-year horizon, that goes against planning orthodoxy designed to approach land use in concert with responsible guidance from demographics, researchers, scientists, economists and, most importantly, community members. Using a three-decade window instead of a shorter timeline, is the preferred goal of developers who can demand their assembled property be used now to meet “market” demand in the future, knowing the maximum return on their investment would be jeopardized if that “demand” never materializes. 

So, Peel will now see its urban boundary expanded by almost 11,000 acres, conveniently into land already owned by powerful developers that fits exactly into the map staff came up with for the new urban boundary. Coincidence?

The entire process highlighted so much of what is wrong with modern climate and environmental policies; the ongoing erosion of democratic participation within municipal government; and the level of influence wielded by private interests (the powerful development lobby) that use money to speed up the destruction of our natural world. 

Regional councillors would have you believe none of this is their fault. They are being forced to do this by the provincial PC government. A cover letter attached to the plan—which needs to be sent to and approved by Queen’s Park—states the Region has serious concerns with the “rigid Provincially mandated policy framework”. A short way of saying the Region was not happy to have to plan for 30 years into the future, using intensification and density targets that are much lower (to accommodate the sprawl that will now be built) than what the previous Liberal government put in place. 

Regional staff and complacent elected officials refused to accept they had an exit ramp. 

If they were truly concerned with the PC government’s “mandated policy framework” why not wait until after the provincial election on June 2, as community members and other smart growth advocates tried to suggest (their voices were snuffed out by the Region’s chair of planning, Carolyn Parrish). If their desire to avoid the developer-driven outcome was sincere, would councillors not want to exhaust all avenues to prevent this destructive path?

Or was the fate of Peel’s future already decided by the companies who long ago bought up land that was not in the urban boundary, knowing they would get their way?

These are the same developers Doug Ford has close ties with, the ones he made a promise to in 2018, when he was vying for the job of premier. As the leaked video footage, taped in a private room filled with residential home builders, shows, Ford vowed to “open a big chunk” of the Greenbelt for single-family homes after talking with “some of the biggest developers in this country.” 

The so-called “balanced approach” Peel is now bound to includes almost no information about how the region’s future growth will consider the parallel climate and biodiversity crises. The plan includes only vague buzzwords and catchphrases like “integrate climate change considerations in planning and managing growth” or states the incredibly obvious like new development needs to “address the impacts of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” None of the actions to integrate “climate change considerations” are in the plan, but councillors did achieve the opposite by trampling over their own sustainability policies in their rush to approve a developer-friendly growth strategy. 

The treatment of residents throughout the process has been labeled an affront to democracy. Peel citizens who took time out of their workday to share their own research, thoughts and concerns, were bullied into speeding up their presentations, cut off by politicians who claimed they didn’t need to hear their dissenting opinions because they have heard them all before. Developers and their consultants, however, were not treated the same way, despite repeating what they have been claiming over and over again for years.

Nowhere in their claims about the need for more single-family homes do they explain how this will create affordability (simply increasing supply of expensive houses will not accomplish this) and the dire need for more affordable units was a complete after thought. 

“It does seem to be different rules applying to the public than to developers,” said Mississauga resident Rahul Mehta, who is a member of the local group Stop Sprawl Peel. 

Peel’s council members, elected to represent and listen to their residents—paid the highest municipal salaries in Canada to do so—appeared more worried about getting home in time for dinner, than the decision they were about to make, which will directly impact hundreds of thousands of lives for decades and our planet forever. They barely engaged with their own constituents who took the time from their own hectic lives, which unlike councillors is not part of their job.

In a previous story, The Pointer broke down the approved policies, from climate change master plans to environmental guidance documents that would be violated if Peel councillors voted to hand over almost 11,000 acres of greenspace and agricultural land to developers. 

Now, all those documents are not worth the paper they are written on. 

If thousands of pages of policy work and hundreds of hours of staff time that go into making these documents can be overridden in a single motion, what’s the point of spending the time and taxpayer money on creating them? 

What confidence can residents have in council’s promise that the vast majority of growth in the coming years will take place within the existing urban boundary? Especially when the Region of Peel, in 2020, wasn’t even meeting the Province’s watered down intensification target of 50 percent—that year the Region sat at 44 percent, failing to comply with expectations to pursue complete communities that support active transportation and transit, not single-detached subdivisions and more cars on sprawling new highways the PCs are vowing to build. 

What took place in council chambers over the last three weeks in the rush to pass the Official Plan before the June 2 election—a timeline driven by developers to assure their goal even if the PCs lose their majority government—revealed everything wrong with municipal government today. 

A group of weak elected officials, many who have served for decades, out of touch with younger constituents and the realities future generations will have to face, looked like pawns of the provincial government and their powerful developer friends.

Other than Caledon Councillor Annette Groves, who voted against the plan, no councillor around the table showed conviction to use land responsibly, despite their obligation to represent their constituents. The climate crisis so many residents spoke to, was ignored by the very people paid to listen to them. 

Regional council voted in March of last year to oppose the GTA West Highway as a result of the negative environmental impacts and the sprawl it would create. The opposition came following strong local advocacy and the pioneering work of other surrounding municipalities. The newly approved Official Plan effectively opens up the exact same land developers are using Highway 413 to open up, as a trigger for future construction.

The Region of Peel has effectively eliminated the buffer between future urban development and the Greenbelt.

(Map Region of Peel

 

In 2019, regional council declared a climate emergency and vowed to reduce Peel’s corporate greenhouse gas emissions 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030. With the new Official Plan, this goal is severely compromised, if not impossible. The infrastructure required for construction to support any of this new growth and the carbon release created by congestion-inducing sprawl will certainly offset any other efforts to reduce emissions. 

Councillors also approved a motion on March 24, urging the Province to put a moratorium on issuing new gravel licenses to get a handle on an industry that is operating with impunity across Ontario’s rural landscapes. The Town of Caledon is literally scarred by the work of this environmentally destructive industry. But with the opening of these 11,000 acres, it is aggregate that will be required—lots of it—to build these sprawling neighbourhoods and the roadways to stitch them together. 

To sum up, Peel councillors have claimed they want to mitigate climate change, but have approved an Official Plan that will do the exact opposite. They claimed they don’t want the 413 Highway which would destroy land while unlocking sprawl, but have approved a plan that opens up the same lands for development. And they have claimed the Province needs to pump the brakes on Ontario’s aggregate industry, while handing it a massive gift. 

And elected officials wonder why trust in politicians is at historic lows. 

The story gets worse. It’s clear some Peel councillors want more than the 11,000 acres. At the 11th hour, Caledon’s Allan Thompson attempted to ram through an amendment that would have opened up even more land for development. Right in the protected Greenbelt. His fellow councillors and regional staff had only seen the motion hours earlier. Adrian Smith, the Region’s chief planner, said the motion was a “fairly substantial departure from where we were.”

“This is a kind of sneaky, backhanded little trick,” said Councillor Parrish, in a welcome departure from her admitted position that public opposition to the staff plan was futile. 

The motion was eventually referred to staff and not included as part of the approved Offical Plan—but it showed how easily developers can add to the 11,000 acres that have now been unlocked.

“There’s nothing underhanded here,” Thompson vowed. “I was just trying to make something work.”

For whom?

There will be more on that in The Pointer’s future reporting. 

Peel councillors are not entirely wrong in complaining that the entire planning process is stacked against them. But they did next to nothing to push back. Halton Region and Hamilton both refused to listen to the PC government’s “guidance” and voted to freeze their urban boundary to prevent further sprawl. 

The PCs changed intensification targets for urban planners in 2020 so that less growth would need to be accommodated within existing municipal boundaries; they extended the planning horizon from 2041 to 2051, meaning municipalities like Peel had to plan for 30 years of growth—as opposed to a phased approach that was the norm previously and allows planners to respond to more immediate conditions, not speculation by developers about what will be needed three decades from now—and then the PCs released a housing forecast that allocated significantly more residents, jobs and housing to suburban areas outside established urban growth corridors. The goal was to create a case for opening more natural space and farmland for development. 

“This is all intentional. It’s a very conscious, strategic, sprawl agenda that mirrors what the industry has been lobbying for for well over 10 years, almost since the first Growth Plan came out in 2006,” Victor Doyle previously told The Pointer. Doyle is the author of Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan.

“They’ve basically rigged the whole system.”

Doyle believes Peel’s decision to open these lands, on top of the loss of natural capital when these areas are destroyed, will have a disastrous consequence—the opening of the Greenbelt for development. 

A look at Ontario’s Natural Heritage Information Centre map shows the land being opened up is peppered with wetlands and striped with Greenbelt outcroppings—small streams, creeks and rivers that run south to Lake Ontario and trace their headwaters farther north into the heart of the protected Greenbelt. Peel councillors were well aware of the risks of developing in this portion of the Humber River Watershed. Yet they went ahead with it anyway. 

“A ‘business-as-usual’ approach to future development will result in continued losses of environmental quality, biodiversity and cultural heritage. There will be considerable costs to address the health, social and economic consequences of degraded environmental conditions, and damaged infrastructure and property,” reads a TRCA report on the Humber River Watershed. That report was published in 2008. 

Describing Peel’s Official Plan as “business-as-usual” is putting it lightly. 

“Stop making status quo 1970s decisions in 2022,” wrote Peel resident Nancy Hurst. “Peel's plan to open up 10,000 acres to development is irresponsible and dangerous and obviously shows that either developers own council or that council is not paying attention to the major issues of the day.”

There is one significant issue with the “Doug Ford made me do it” excuse that Parrish and other councillors tirelessly use. 

If Peel councillors were truly concerned about what they are being “forced” to do by the Province, one would think they would take every opportunity to not do that thing. But they refused to take any steps to avoid it. 

Parrish has made a career, including as a Mississauga MP, of pushing back against the status quo. What could have been different this time?

Councillors claimed things would become much worse if they oppose the PCs now, that at least they control some of their own destiny by capitulating to what Ford is demanding.

Really?

Halton did not think so. Hamilton did not think so.

Do Peel's officials have a crystal ball?

They know, for certain, the PCs will retain a majority government after June 2?

If just 15 seats move out of the blue column, the NDP, Liberals and Greens could immediately turn around all the destructive policies rammed through over the past four years.  

Delaying the decision on Peel’s Official Plan until after the election would have allowed councillors to work under a different provincial planning regime. Both the NDP and Liberals have said they would change the PCs’ current planning process and on May 2 the Green Party of Ontario announced it would freeze urban boundaries across the province.

“Sprawl is expensive, bad for the environment, bad for food security, bad for our health and makes us more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate emergency by destroying the wetlands that protect us from flooding,” Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner stated in a press release.  

So if the PCs lose their majority, Peel councillors could have the opening to change the Official Plan many of them claim to be so unhappy with. The deadline for submission of the plan to the Province is not until July 1. 

Both Parrish and Adrian Smith refused to acknowledge the logic behind waiting. Instead residents were fed the line that delaying submission would result in the PC government stepping in and imposing their will on the Region. 

This is simply not true. The PC government, while retaining the option to step in if a municipality refuses to pass an Official Plan to meet their guidelines, the mechanism to intervene in municipal planning is not triggered until after the July 1 deadline. 

There is little risk in waiting until after June 2 to approve the plan, despite Smith’s repeated claims that the Province was hovering over them like a piano on a thin rope. 

Councillors also refused to address critically important questions about the costing of the Official Plan. 

By unlocking these lands, they have opened the floodgates. The Region claims the urban boundary has to be expanded to accommodate growth, but it uses a 30-year timeline, projecting out three decades, speculating population will reach the now extended boundary by then. Though much of this is pure guesswork, as planners across the Province and groups such as Environmental Defence have extensively researched—the existing urban boundary can accommodate future growth; more buyers do not want to live in sprawl; external transit investments hinge on planning dense, complete communities; future overriding federal legislation might demand dense planning to trigger funding for affordable housing—developers do not need to wait 30 years before being allowed to rush forward with applications now supported by the Official Plan. Once it is approved by the Province, proposals from developers can start flooding in, putting the Region and its taxpayers on the hook to pay for all the infrastructure and services. Without policies that protect against unsupported growth (subdivisions built away from existing infrastructure) taxpayers could be crippled by costs to build sewer, water, wastewater and other infrastructure to far flung properties, while fire, police and paramedic services along with public health, recreation, libraries and other municipal obligations have to be stretched out to the new municipal boundary.

There was little discussion around the council table about coordinating planning approvals for developers with a budget process that would only allow projects to go forward if all the costs for infrastructure and services can be supported. 


The loss of valuable prime agricultural land in Peel raises questions not only about food security, but the loss of carbon capture these fields and greenspaces provide.

(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer

 

“I would like to know what is the final financial analysis on how much the infrastructure for this official plan will cost taxpayers. What is the final number,” asked Caledon resident Jenni Le Forestier with Stop Sprawl Peel, when delegating to Peel Council ahead of the Official Plan’s approval. “Taxpayers deserve to know how much their taxes will increase for thousands of acres of sprawl compared to accommodating the growth numbers within the existing urban boundary… Please direct me to where I can find that.”

No such direction was provided to Le Forestier and no staff were tapped to answer the question. There does not appear to be any such costing described in the Official Plan. 

Approving the plan this way allows the developers to get what they want immediately, even if the housing market changes dramatically in 10, 20 or 30 years. The Province has published projections, but they can be wrong. Historic population projections for Mississauga saw the city reaching a total population of 795,000 in 2021. According to the 2020 Census, the City’s population was only 717,961, and the number of people in Mississauga actually declined between 2015 and 2021. This type of a scenario completely contradicts what the developers, Parrish and Smith refuse to consider, that even if future homeowners create large demand for sprawl, it could be met within the existing urban boundary. 

Region of Peel decision makers are basing their growth scenario on potentially unreliable information from a government they say they don’t agree with. Aside from writing a letter to show the public, they have taken no action to stop the developer-led process. 

“The world is in a race against time,” said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a statement on April 27. “We cannot afford slow movers, fake movers or any form of greenwashing.”

“As councillors, I believe that it's your job to protect our communities, environments and people from things such as pollution and investing in the wrong industry,” said Anne Biason-Hart, a 21-year-old resident from Caledon East, while delegating before council. “I am imploring you as a young person who is a resident of the Region of Peel, protect, don’t deflect.”

Other than Councillor Groves, none listened.

In Don’t Look Up, the two scientists imbued with passionate moral clarity by Adam McKay—he co-wrote and directed the film—didn’t get their meeting with the commander in chief on the day they waited, panic-stricken, outside the Oval Office. The president, played with perfect Trumpian detachment by Meryl Streep, was too busy obsessing over her own self-inflicted political disaster.

This is the metaphor that propels the film.

The coming comet is a stand-in for human folly, a celestial creation, made like all of us by some God or force or scientific phenomenon we might never understand. And like we humans who are destroying our planet, and our own existence in the process, the majestically streaking “Great Comet”, hurtling spectacularly, spellbindingly toward us (like the extraordinary brightness of the high life) is never taken seriously… until it’s too late.

The provincial election is June 2. The municipal election is October 24. 

 

 


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @JoeljWittnebel


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