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Greenbelt removals and more

Nov 27, 2015

As expected, city staff are recommending removing fruitbelt lands from the protected Greenbelt, but their report going to councillors next week also has a string of surprises and contradictions. These include a Greenbelt removal not mentioned during the public consultation, unannounced changes to the Niagara Escarpment Plan, and new demands that the province allow Greenbelt changes at any time.

There’s an acknowledgement that Greenbelt removals unveiled in September took no account of ongoing land purchases by the Hamilton Conservation Authority, but no apology for the mistake that has at least raised prices on additional acquisitions for an east escarpment conservation area. Similarly, there’s no mention in the report that the public consultation was originally limited to three rural open houses until protests by Environment Hamilton forced the addition of one in the urban area where over 90 percent of Hamiltonians reside.

The contradictions include seeking a delay in the Greenbelt review process so the city can conduct the studies they think will justify the removals, and at the same time urging council to push for the changes without the studies. In addition, nearly all the fruitlands that staff want removed from the Greenbelt were previously accepted by the city for inclusion as part of an Ontario Municipal Board compromise with the province.

These comprise just over 250 acres (104 ha) of fruit belt near Winona that developers want to urbanize. A surprise addition is 70 acres (28 ha) north of Waterdown that are crossed by the proposed Waterdown bypass. This block was not included in the possible Greenbelt changes that residents were asked to comment on during the September open houses. Staff characterize both removals as “minor revisions”.

The consultation found “no clear consensus on whether lands should be removed or added, or which lands should be removed or added, due to the diversity of interests.” Ownership of the lands is not revealed in the report but public comments are cited that “lands outside the Greenbelt Plan have a different long term financial value”.

Consultation views are otherwise not quantified except in a general statement that distinguishes landowners from other people: “The majority of land owners whose lands were not in the Greenbelt Plan wished to remain out of the Greenbelt Plan. Alternatively, many people wished to grow the Greenbelt area.”

In an apparent attempt at horse trading with Queens Park, the report also suggests 570 acres (231 ha) of farmlands on either side of Nebo Road south of Twenty Mile Creek could be added to the Greenbelt. The legal advice section explains that “if council recommends removal of lands from the Greenbelt Plan without adding equal amount of lands into the Greenbelt Plan, a request to amend the Greenbelt Plan Act will be required.”

That doesn’t deter staff from also recommending major revision of the legislation “to allow municipalities to request changes to Greenbelt Plan designations and boundaries at the conclusion of a municipal comprehensive review” which could occur at any time. They also call on council to challenge a recent provincial study that concluded that there are “no land supply constraints that would prevent any municipality from achieving the density and intensification targets established by the [provincial] Growth Plan.”

It justifies this challenge with an estimate that the city may want to urbanize 200-700 ha (500-1700 acres) of farmland before 2041 to handle population growth. There is far more than this not currently protected by the Greenbelt, but staff argue that nearly two-thirds is affected by noise from the airport and therefore not ideal for residential and commercial growth. The location of these noise contours were also a major argument used by the city to justify its aerotropolis boundary expansion completed earlier this year.   

Despite the city’s enthusiasm for changing it, the province has long described the Greenbelt as “permanent” and the mandatory 10-year-review now underway as an opportunity to enlarge it or make minor tweaks. The city report acknowledges any change requires the municipality to provide “a comprehensive justification or growth management strategy”, hence its call for either a delay in the provincial decision process or a change in the legislation to allow Hamilton to obtain a modification of the Greenbelt at such time as the city is more prepared to document the need to do so.

Staff dismiss the appeals of Environment Hamilton and others to add Red Hill Valley and other urban stream valleys to the Greenbelt – something that has taken place in other municipalities. The report argues that “additional provincial policy does not create a greater level of environmental protection” but also warns that in Red Hill it might affect “the approved Environmental Assessment” for the expressway and impose “policies contained within the Greenbelt Plan” on urban river valleys.

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