Hamilton wants more opinions on expanding its urban boundaries and developing rural land

Hamilton will wait a little longer to decide whether to expand its urban boundaries.

Residents and farming and environmental organizations emphasize a need to protect the environment

Members of the public largely spoke against urban sprawl and emphasized the need to protect the environment and agricultural land. (Bobby Hristova/CBC News)

Hamilton city council will wait a little longer to decide on expanding the city's urban boundaries after public outcry against paving over rural green space.

The city says it expects 110,300 more households in Hamilton by 2051 and needs more land for homes to accommodate them all. It's considering developing over 1,300 hectares of "Whitebelt lands" — land outside the urban boundary that isn't protected as part of the Greenbelt.

More than 50 people spoke on the controversial issue at a general issues committee meeting Monday. Nearly all opposed the idea. Another 150 or so sent letters about it.

"This is such an important decision for us in the here-and-now in this community, and we really do have to get it right," said Lynda Lukasik, executive director of Environment Hamilton, which launched a petition urging the city to freeze its boundaries. 

Council voted unanimously to defer the decision, which Coun. Brad Clark (Ward 9, upper Stoney Creek) moved. It also asked staff to consult more with the community before bringing back another recommendation. 

"Given all of the new provincial rules, it appears to me that the province has stacked the deck to practically force cities to proceed with urban boundary expansions," he said.

"I'm not naive. Under these changes, an urban boundary expansion may well be inevitable. But how much? How dense? How fast? Shouldn't we decide?"

'Ambitious density'

A report by city staff breaks down the expected growth to an increase of 236,000 people, 110,000 housing units, and 122,000 jobs over the next 30 years.

Since provincial policies require cities to have room for 15 years of residential growth, but also a mix of housing types, city staff said intensification of already built-areas alone isn't an option. 

A staff report recommended an "Ambitious Density" scenario, and said about 80 per cent of the growth would be accommodated within the existing urban area.

As for the rest, the city is looking to green fields.

The report pointed to the province's Land Needs Assessment Methodology of August 2020 for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which calls for projecting growth to 2051. This has the city expand for a shortfall in units that can't be accommodated in the existing urban area. 

'Land grab' policies

"This policy change effectively orchestrates a land grab," Lukasik said.

Appearing online, residents, doctors, religious leaders, and others cautioned against urban sprawl. They emphasized the need to protect the environment and preserve farmland. 

"The backbone to rural life in Hamilton is agriculture," said Drew Spoelstra, vice-president of Ontario Federation of Agriculture and chair of Hamilton's agricultural and rural affairs advisory committee.

The city, he said, should build "up, not out."

Whitebelt land

While land has been identified in the Greenbelt, Spoelstra said, a lot isn't suitable for farming because it's rocky or swampland. He called on the city to freeze its urban boundaries and protect food-producing land.

There is 4,320 hectares of Whitebelt land, the city said, but about half can't be used for homes because of restrictions related to airport noise. Once you take out natural heritage features, cemeteries and rights-of-way, the city says, 1,600 hectares is developable. 

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce supports the expansion, and said long-term planning would secure the city's "share." 

"If Hamilton doesn't plan to accommodate, this impending growth will go elsewhere," said Paul Szachlewicz, policy advisor for the chamber.

The province requires Hamilton to update its official plan by July 1, 2022. But city staff say timelines are tightened since an election is scheduled for June of that year, and no decisions will be made following the writ anticipated in April 2022. 

Mail-out survey to come

The city will send a mail-out survey to residents, which Clark estimated will cost $35,000. 

Clark said he's concerned that residents have been too greatly affected by the pandemic to make their voices heard. People have lost access to public internet, have lost their jobs, have fallen ill, and are trying to follow changing pandemic rules, he said.

"COVID-19 has all but consumed our daily lives," he said, urging for a more accessible way to get feedback.

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said he worries the pandemic might not end by the fall of 2021, but said October would be an ideal time for another report to come back. 

The mayor will also correspond with Premier Doug Ford and Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, on delaying Hamilton's growth plan submission until the public has been consulted and to extend the deadline. 


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