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Durham Region was already struggling to support growth. Then the province opened up its Greenbelt lands


It’s hard for Brigitte Sopher to reconcile what she sees when she drives by the community of Seaton with the vision sold to Pickering residents more than a decade ago.

The project in the northeastern part of the city, greenlighted in 2014, promised to be one of the largest residential and commercial developments in Canadian history — a “walkable, transit-supportive community,” according to Pickering’s website, surrounded by nature, that would eventually accommodate up to 70,000 new residents.

But almost a decade later, critics say Seaton, located at Highway 407 and Whites Road, has become exactly what it wasn’t supposed to be — an underpopulated slice of sprawling suburbia built in the middle of fields, kilometres away from the closest community and amenities. So far, only a fraction of the project has come to fruition, with just 1,500 housing permits issued for the first phase instead of the planned 12,000.

“It was supposed to be a model city of tomorrow,” said Sopher, who has lived in Pickering for almost 40 years.

“I was there recently … and I was appalled. It was a cookie-cutter copy of any subdivision, centred out around the use of a car … and had nothing that respected the natural environmental features of the land.”

To critics, Seaton is what they fear the future could look like in Durham Region as it faces a massive amount of growth being pushed on it by the province through the opening of 4,500 acres of Greenbelt lands, requests for minister’s zoning orders by local politicians, and an urban boundary expansion of 9,100 acres — at a time when the region barely has capacity to support growth that’s been planned for years.

“Certain politicians and the province are stuck in an outdated way of thinking,” said Helen Brenner, a Pickering resident and co-chair of advocacy group Stop Sprawl Durham, referring to the massive amounts of infrastructure that must be funded, planned and built to support housing in the middle of farmland.

“I think there is a mentality of ‘This is the way we have always done it’ without the recognition that times have drastically changed and the old model is no longer working.”

Last fall, the province backtracked on a pledge not to touch the Greenbelt, opening15 areas of the protected land in the GTA and Hamilton, totalling 7,400 acres, for development.

The largest chunk was in Pickering and included the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve (DRAP), a 4,500-acre stretch of farmland and environmentally sensitive lands. The province also opened up two other smaller parcels, including one in Ajax near Highway 401 and Lake Ridge Road, and one in Clarington.

Pickering and Durham Region Coun. Maurice Brenner (no relation to Helen) said in the nearly 40 years he has been a politician, he has “never seen this level of chaos around planning” in both municipalities.

“We don’t have capacity of water or sewage for what we want to build now,” he said, adding that for the second phase of Seaton, which is supposed to accommodate 22,600 people, “we aren’t even close.”

In an email, Brian Bridgeman, planning commissioner for Durham Region, said it has taken time to get the Seaton lands serviced with water, sewer and roads as it does with any green-field development.

“Now that the infrastructure for the Seaton Phase 1 lands has been completed, the pace of permit issuance has picked up year over year,” he said.

Andrew Sjogren, senior vice-president of land development with Mattamy Homes, said that from the time the draft plans of the subdivision were approved in 2013-14, the “design, approval and construction of the required infrastructure necessary to pull the first building permit took an additional four to five years.” The company received the first building permit for Seaton in 2018.

Sjogren said the “relatively slow uptick in permits since then” was a result of how long it took to build the infrastructure, such as roads, water treatment plant expansion, water mains and utilities.

“The physical size, complexity and cost of these projects are almost unprecedented in scale in the GTA for any new community,” said Sjogren, adding that with the infrastructure installed, the rate of home construction is expected to increase.

Former Ajax mayor Steve Parish said that given the infrastructure capacity limitations, it’s unlikely Seaton will be fully built until 2051 — decades after the project was first proposed. (The region said it will be built out by 2041.)

Parish said this raises questions about why more land is even needed in Pickering, and given all the new land allocated for the region, what will be given priority for development.

When the province opened the Greenbelt lands, it set specific timelines that had to be met to help achieve its goal of building 1.5 million homes in 10 years. Among those: there must be “significant progress” on housing approvals by the end of 2023, construction on a new home can begin no later than 2025, and the developer will fully fund the necessary infrastructure up front.

“If the Ford government has mandated that the DRAP be developed for 50,000 homes, does that mean that the region is provincially mandated to give unplanned, unserviced, un-scoped land priority over all the ones they have already done work on?” said Parish.

“The thought that it could go from having no servicing plans whatsoever to have approvals in place and building permits issued and building starting by 2025 … it’s just not reality,” Parish said.

In a report at council next month, Pickering staff say based on growth that has already been approved and planned for, they expect 15,021 “housing units” to be built by 2031, exceeding housing targets of13,000.

The province didn’t answer questions about whether it would assist Pickering and Durham to give priority to developing the Greenbelt lands.

“Developments will require planning approvals from the municipality and the province will require that environmentally sensitive areas are set aside and protected before any construction begins,” said Victoria Podbielski, spokesperson for Housing Minister Steve Clark, in an email, adding that “our commitment remains that if these projects do not move forward within the next two years then these lands will be returned to the Greenbelt.”

Catherine Rose, chief planner for Pickering, said the city is “very cognizant of the minister’s requirements for shovels to be in the ground” in the Duffins Rouge land by 2025.

In a December report on the Greenbelt lands, Durham Region planning staff said the “timing set out in the … posting is aggressive and does not appear to reflect whether the areas can be serviced” by 2025.

But in an email to the Star this month, Bridgeman said the region will be giving priority to DRAP, “but not at the expense of other lands already in the development pipeline.”

He said the region was “initiating discussions with the landowners to ensure there is no negative financial impact to the region from the development of these lands.”

Durham chair John Henry said the province’s expectations will be very difficult to meet, if all the variables remain the same.

“If something was to come in today on the DRAP lands, we would look at it, but it depends on the capacity (of the infrastructure). And we have all this existing work that is already going on that has been planned for years,” Henry said. “These new lands are not in the current planning cycle, so how do we meet the expectations of the province? That is a real concern.”

Henry said in addition to servicing costs, municipalities also must pay for transit, waste services, schools and health care. With changes in the recent housing bill that cut development charges, the region is estimating a shortfall of $280 million over the next five years, he added.

“We want to work with the province, but the willingness has to work both ways,” he said. “They have made a decision, but they have to understand we can’t fund their plan off our existing tax base.” Durham residents already pay the highest taxes in the GTA.

While some area politicians are asking for a reprieve, others are forging ahead with the province’s mandate of more housing.

Just days before Christmas, Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe sent a letter to the housing minister, asking for a minister’s zoning order, or MZO, to fast-track a 4,000-acre project in northeast Pickering called Veraine to accommodate 60,000 people, which sits adjacent to federal airport lands and atop the sensitive headwaters of Carruther’s Creek.

“The city’s official position on this community remains unchanged,” said Ashe in an email to the Star, adding that the previous council voted to endorse the MZO in 2020.

“If we accept the premise that we are in a crisis, which I do, then we have to take bold action to get the issues of affordability and attainability back under control,” Ashe said, adding that Veraine would “provide lowrise housing opportunities.”

Coun. Maurice Brenner and three of the seven city councillors said they were not aware of the mayor’s recent request to the province, which had been endorsed by the previous council but was not sent to the province because it didn’t get support from the region. The letter was never discussed with the new council.

The four councillors wrote to the province this month urging the minister to refuse the MZO request. “At no time was this request presented to members of this council for consideration,” the letter said.

The province said it had received the request from Ashe, but has not made a decision.

“The physical size, complexity and cost of these projects are almost unprecedented in scale in the GTA for any new community.






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