In shaping the future, only the public interest counts

It’s going to take an awful lot of public participation in the regional official plan (ROP) review to outweigh the demands of developers, who typically end up with the most say in perpetuating sprawl, congestion and the other negatives of growth.

Call it the public interest over self-interest. Unfortunately, the latter typically wins.

The developers employee lobbying techniques, legal action and hired help to fight or simply wait out the public good. What local politicians don’t acquiesce to, the courts and provincial government will hand over to those with the deepest pockets.

In drafting a new official plan, the region sees unchecked population growth – to 835,000 by 2041, an increase of 300,000 over 25 years since the 2016 census – and commensurate development levels. There will be some debate about the nature of that development, but we can expect to be crammed into a dwindling amount of space, with no upside to the quality of life, nor any savings on ever-increasing tax bills.

Such growth in the region is still bound to put pressures on available land, especially in the townships where farms are still the norm.

On the growth and expansion front, the region has its growth management strategy in place, calling for fewer greenfield developments and more intensification in the downtown cores of the three cities. Attached to that goal is the unloved light rail transit scheme designed to encourage public transit over private automobiles, to little avail.

On the growth front, the township will continue to be squeezed by the perceived need for growth and the push to retain the small-town feel and rural qualities that brings new people here in the first place.

Much of the problem stems from ever-increasing density requirements forced on municipalities by a Toronto-centric provincial government. Policies that decrease lot sizes and demand higher density housing then exacerbate traffic and parking issues that are already getting worse, even in a small town like Elmira.

In grouping the homes more closely, planners achieve a number of goals: using less land, reducing the infrastructure (particularly water and sewer pipes) needed to service the homes and, ideally, reducing the need for cars.

But the densities don’t mesh well with existing neighbourhoods, a problem for which the province cares not one whit, leaving municipalities to deal with the fallout.

The suburbs of old have come under fire for the sprawl and isolation they represent. New thinking, previously endorsed and enforced by the province, calls for more integrated neighbourhoods where people can live, shop and work in close proximity, perhaps even doing so on foot or bicycle rather than depending on the personal automobile.

That remains something of an elusive dream in this area. And price more than anything has dictated smaller lot sizes. Most of us, it seems, still want a big lot and big house away from what we see as the downside of higher density urban living. But skyrocketing land prices and soaring taxes and charges on development have driven up costs such that 80- and 100-foot frontages are beyond the means of many as house prices outstrip inflation and incomes.

As with public transit, higher densities and mixed communities are fine for the other guy.

In their ideal form, the mixed developments proposed by developers offer many benefits. The pattern of sprawl we’ve seen in cities since the Second World War has come with many downsides. Urban sprawl contributes to the degradation of our natural environment, air quality and water resources, as well as the consumption of agricultural lands and other natural resources so critical to the future economy.

Whatever the future, better it is shaped in the public interest of the residents, than in the financial interest of the few.

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