This article was written by Oliver Moore and was published in the Globe & Mail on March 27, 2023.
There’s only so much space in a sewage pipe, and the Ontario government’s plan to turn over some of the Greenbelt for housing has the mayor of Newmarket warning that this new demand on the region’s wastewater system could use up capacity that might otherwise go to denser neighbourhoods.
A sewer upgrade planned for the city north of Toronto is years away, even as the provincial government pushes for rapid development of formerly protected farm fields right next door.
“Are they going to take the very little allocation we currently have and say it should go there over multistorey buildings on rapidways?” Mayor John Taylor asks, referring to roads with dedicated bus lanes. “Cause that literally is promoting a form of sprawl over the best form of intensification, which is transit-oriented development on a major corridor at a transit stop.”
The tension goes to the heart of a major complaint about Premier Doug Ford’s Greenbelt plans, which critics say ignore local concerns and perpetuate an unsustainable pattern of sprawl.
An increasing body of research shows that building low-density communities creates a permanent financial headache for municipalities. Fewer people pay taxes for civic services that cost more per capita to provide. There is a higher price for everything from roads to absorb new vehicles, and schools to educate additional students, to wastewater pipes to handle the result of a lot more flushing toilets. And because sprawl communities encourage driving, they are at odds with sustainability goals.
In Newmarket, the $861-million cost of expanding the sewage system to send effluent south to a plant in Pickering must be borne by York Region, according to the province. Nearly half of it is not funded. However, the province also promises that the system will be online by the end of 2026, an aggressive timeline that includes environmental impact assessments, general public and Indigenous consultation and construction.
Mr. Ford said he was responding to a housing affordability crisis when his government proposed in early November allowing development of about 3,000 hectares of the Greenbelt, land that has been protected since 2005. In late December the government formally enacted the changes.
The Greenbelt changes are one part of broader government housing plans that aim to generate 1.5 million homes over a decade.
“We recognize the need to build all types of homes for all types of Ontarians,” Victoria Podbielski, press secretary to Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, said in an e-mail. “Our proposals will help cities, towns and rural communities grow with a mix of ownership and rental housing types, from singlefamily homes to townhomes and mid-rise apartments.”
Under the housing plan, about 3 per cent of these new homes are projected to come in the form of added density in existing neighbourhoods, and there are incentives for developers willing to build affordable housing.
But the plan places an emphasis on urban expansion. The vast majority of new homes would be built in the suburbs, including by extending these outward. In Hamilton, the province overruled council plans to densify and instead facilitated sprawl by forcing an expansion of the municipal boundaries, leading to concerns about how much this could cost the city.
“Growth cannot proceed without servicing. I see no reason Council would approve funding servicing for any of this land,” Councillor John-paul Danko wrote in a series of tweets last November. “Water, stormwater, roads, planning, design, contract management, construction inspection, utilities, fire, police, paramedics, recreation – we have priorities – and it’s not sprawl.”
Also in December, Durham Region chief administrative officer Elaine Baxter-trahair warned in a report that “no plans have been developed, and downstream infrastructure has not been sized to accommodate extensive development” within the approximately 1,800 hectares of Greenbelt land being made available for home construction in Durham. She added that it was “unclear” whether developers would be required to fund the necessary infrastructure.
The advocacy group Environmental Defence noted last month that the areas being opened to development around the Greenbelt “lack roads, sewers, water lines and other infrastructure.”
Once built up, the government says that the Greenbelt land could become the site of at least 50,000 homes. Such a level of development – the equivalent of approximately 17 homes per hectare – would resemble existing sprawl communities such as Pickering.
That carries financial implications that could last decades.
“Ordinary infill is just way more profitable than [sprawl], from a property tax perspective,” said David Gordon, a professor in the school of urban and regional planning at Queen’s University.
“That’s not well understood by the public, and it seems to be deliberately being misunderstood by our policy-makers at Queen’s Park at the moment.”
Looking at both revenues and costs, consultants working for the City of Ottawa found that homes added within built-up areas paid for themselves while suburban homes were a net liability. Updating a 2013 report in 2021, Hemson Consulting Ltd. concluded that denser homes generated an average of $606 each annually to the city, in 2020 dollars, while suburban homes cost the municipality $465 a year on average.
It’s an unsustainable combination that becomes very expensive for sprawl cities, with fewer residents to foot the bill, when civic infrastructure comes due for replacement.
In Newmarket, Mr. Taylor, who was first elected mayor in 2018 and ran unopposed in October, is worried about long-term liabilities but also has a more immediate problem. Even before Bill 23, the community was projected to run out of sewage capacity in five years at the current rate of development.
The region had been pushing for more than a decade to get a new sewage treatment facility. Instead, the provincial government announced in October that the regional governments of York and Durham must “do everything in their powers” to expand local infrastructure and pipe effluent to a facility in Durham – without Queen’s Park picking up the cost.
With government pressure on developers of Greenbelt land to start building by 2025, including the parcel immediately beside Newmarket, Mr. Taylor is concerned low-density homes in this area will get first access to the limited sewage capacity.
“I don’t support opening the Greenbelt, but if you’re going to do that how are there not intensification targets and employment targets and complete-community philosophies built into it?” he said.
“I would have gotten on stage and cut a ribbon and with my arms around the Premier if this had’ve been focused on rental housing, on transit-oriented development and intensification.”