by Anne Bell

Ontario’s Greenbelt, covering 728,000 hectares of land that surrounds the Golden Horseshoe, may become even larger. The provincial government has been holding public meetings seeking input on draft criteria to expand the Greenbelt. These criteria will allow for input from community members and organizations in response to proposed expansions, and will ensure that expansions represent logical extensions to the existing Greenbelt that are consistent with the Greenbelt Plan and other provincial planning initiatives.

Waterloo, a region potentially interested in expansion, has already made considerable progress in protecting thousands of hectares of ecologically significant lands through its precedent-setting Greenlands Strategy. The region is concerned, however, that should the boundaries of the Greenbelt extend to include parts of the Waterloo area, standards of protection currently set under the Greenlands strategy might actually be lowered in accordance with the standards of the Greenbelt Plan. Waterloo is therefore seeking assurance from the provincial government that, if expansion occurs, the higher local standards will prevail.

As Kevin Thomason, a member of the Laurel Creek Headwaters Environmentally Sensitive Landscape Committee, explains, “Under the Provincial Growth Strategy – Places to Grow – Waterloo Region is targeted for an astounding 50 percent increase in population over the next few decades, yet there’s no protection for our critical natural areas and resources in the original provincial Greenbelt. An expansion of the Greenbelt into the Guelph and Waterloo areas could have an incredible impact on protecting our resources, better balancing growth and helping to prevent the leap-frogging that is becoming a huge issue in some areas.

“On the other hand,” continues Thomason, “if the provincial Greenbelt expansion overrides local regulations, it would weaken our protection and might allow things such as lot severances in critical rural areas that we have already worked hard to protect and ensure remain as productive family farms. We need to ensure that the strongest level of protection prevails.”

Another issue of concern is whether some draft criteria might, in fact, result in prohibiting expansion of the Greenbelt even where communities are willing. For example, one criterion stipulates that expansions should be “next to” the existing Greenbelt, which could jeopardize the hopes of a number of municipalities that have expressed interest in adding lands to the existing Greenbelt that are currently separated from it by the lands of an intervening jurisdiction.

“Fortunately,” says Thomason, “a tiny portion of the Greenbelt does extend into Waterloo Region in the Roseville Swamp area, so we could expand from there. We are optimistic and eager to work with the province to so that we can be part of any Greenbelt expansion and ensure the highest possible quality of life for generations to come.”