Credit: Doreen Nicoll

The region of Halton, made up of the city of Burlington and the towns of Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills, will be deciding whether to expand growth onto 5,000 acres of class 1-3 farmland on Feb. 9.

But before regional council votes, each city and town will cast their ballot to accept or reject their staff’s report outlining the best option. In other words, whether to support the Preferred Growth Plan (PGP), also called the Preferred Growth Option, which expands the current urban boundary in north Halton or oppose it.

Both Burlington and Oakville are built out and have no land left for expansion. It’s the farmland in Milton and Halton Hills that is on the chopping block. So far, Burlington approved their staff report which did not ask them to endorse the region’s PGP. Oakville and Milton councils make their decision on Monday. Halton Hills votes on staff recommendations on Feb. 1.

An additional vote on Feb. 9 at the regional level will seal the fate of this invaluable farmland. Oakville has eight votes, Burlington has seven, Milton has five, Halton Hills has three and the regional chair has a single vote.

At the regional level, the vote will be whether to endorse or reject the PGP. To preserve the urban boundary, 13 members of regional council need to vote against the PGP currently on the table. If the PGP is voted down, planners will have to create a new PGP to be presented at a future meeting.

According to Karen Brock, President of Oakvillegreen Conservation Association (OCA), voting for the PGP is premature.

“There are very crucial pieces of information missing as noted in the Town of Oakville’s staff report,” Brock said, noting “some major studies will only be conducted after the vote, which seems backwards.”

Brock’s observations are corroborated by Oakville city staff, who wrote in their report:

“There remains a significant concern with the sequence of the ROPR [Regional Official Plan Review] work plan and the priority in which matters are being addressed,” their report reads. “It appears out of order to be dealing with fundamental policies on agriculture, the natural heritage system and climate change after growth management matters, including settlement area boundary expansions have been decided at regional council.”

The report also lays out concerns and objective warnings for the proposed plan. It clearly states that expanding into greenfields will not mitigate the climate emergency. Instead, it points to intensifying growth within compact communities and established built-up areas.

“Once lands are designated for urban development through a settlement area boundary expansion, that decision is unlikely to be reversed even if it is later determined that those lands are not required to accommodate growth,” staff also warned.

The report goes on to state unequivocally, “Throughout the Integrated Growth Management Strategy (IGMS), staff have consistently expressed support for a Preferred Growth Concept (PGC) that does not open up new lands for development and achieves a high rate of intensification within a defined urban structure.”

That gentle intensification for Oakville would add five per cent semis and townhomes to existing neighbourhoods. It would also include provincially mandated garden suites without adding any towers.

“This critical vote will lock in land use for the next 30 years. That projection is a very, very long way out. Oakvillegreen is not in favour of the Preferred Growth Concept. We are asking for a no Urban Boundary Expansion option. Any compromise would be ill-advised,” Brock said.

Constituents and councillors across Halton have noted the impact that COVID-19 has had on public consultations and input. Halton put forward a resolution stating regional council would delay decisions on expanding the urban boundary until in-person consultations could resume. However, the province refused to push out the deadline. In fact, Halton regional council was reminded that if they did not meet the provincial deadline then the province had the power to step in and take over.

Colin Best, an experienced Milton councillor and member of Halton regional council, will be voting to stop sprawl at Monday’s council meeting. He’s voting for fiscal responsibility, because every new home built means a $2,300 increase in taxes while every apartment equals an increase of $520 for existing residents.

Best also takes issue with the number of people the province has allocated to the region. Originally, the population of Milton was projected to be 239,000 by 2031. Now, it looks like Milton’s trajectory is headed towards 187,000. That’s a significant deficit of 52,000 people who won’t need living accommodations.

Best points to Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s book Empty Planet and Parag Khanna’s book Move, both of which highlight dramatic downward shifts from the population projections made two to three decades ago. The world’s population is starting to plateau with a number of countries experiencing declines.

The combination of smaller families, fewer people emigrating to Canada and undeveloped land already designated for development, means Milton will be able to comfortably house new arrivals within its existing urban boundary well past 2051.

As of Jan. 1, a total of 23 medium and high-density applications for 8,850 units averaging 2.1 people per unit will house 18,585 people in a mix of apartments and townhouses in the next two to five years.

“That number can easily double with mixed use gentle density construction on brown, grey and blue field locations without affecting existing residential areas,” Best said. “The Mobility Hub around the Milton GO Station is projected to have a built-out population of 27,000 people where currently about 600 people live in two 12 floor apartment buildings.”

Best points out that construction standards and methods will continue evolving over the next 30 years, enabling builders to construct environmentally friendlier gentle density without relying on high rises.

Instead, four-to-six story builds proposed in the Places to Grow Act (2005) are a wonderful way to intensify. Best points to new the six-story condominium being built at Thompson Road and Kennedy Circle. That low-rise building will have 138 units and be home to 250 residents.

The former courthouse sits on nine acres that would be perfect for re-development into seniors’ buildings. Additional sites, prime for re-developing into housing, can be found throughout the town.

Best says that planning needs to incorporate the affordability factor. With homes averaging $1.2 million, people working in Milton earning $38,000 to $40,000 annually can’t afford to live in town. At $1,600 per month for a basement apartment, many home owners have one or two apartments in their basement to help cover the mortgage.

Despite experiencing a housing boom, Milton is experiencing a shortage of provincial infrastructure money and polices to help with a severe shortage of schools and hospital facilities.

Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Secondary School has 60 portables. Teachers have to park off site and be bused to school due to the lack of space. Milton has 24 per cent of the region’s population yet, 50 per cent of the region’s portables. This deficit evolved over the past 20 years when less than half the number of schools needed were actually constructed.

Best would like to see gentle density embraced in walkable neighbourhoods.

“Let’s build for what we can do not what we want to do. Not only financially but environmentally,” he said.

All four of these municipalities have passed Climate Emergency resolutions. So, it’s unconscionable that they would ever consider voting for any option other than to stop sprawl. Because not voting for a firm urban boundary would in fact make them climate deniers.

Editor’s Note: January 14, 2022. Previously, this article stated: ” Originally, the population of Milton was projected to be 239,000 by 2031. Now, it looks like Milton’s trajectory is headed towards 181,000. That’s a significant deficit of 58,000 people who won’t need living accommodations…” However, those numbers are actually 187,000 for a deficit of 52,000 people. The story has been updated.