Religious charity to ask King Township Council for support of plans to redevelop part of Greenbelt
Augustinian Fathers (Ontario), Inc. wants to build commercial complex north of King City
A religious charity in Ontario will ask the council of King Township on Monday for support in its quest for a minister's zoning order that would enable it to redevelop land it owns on the province's Greenbelt.
The Augustinian Fathers (Ontario), Inc., a registered charity, sent a letter on Nov. 25 to the council asking it to endorse its request and it has drafted a motion that it hopes the council approves.
The proposed redevelopment is located at 14260 Keele St. in King Township, east of Highway 400 and north of King City. The land is in the Oak Ridges Moraine, part of the Greenbelt, and part of the redevelopment would be in the Moraine's natural core area.
Environmental groups are deeply concerned about the request, saying the charity is trying to bypass public consultation and environmental studies. They say the land includes provincially significant wetlands and the charity is seeking approval for its redevelopment in an anti-democratic way.
"This is bypassing all the regular process for a development of this scale and such a sensitive area," Tim Gray, executive director at Environmental Defence, told CBC Toronto on Saturday.
"The owners here are looking to fast track development approval completely outside of any kind of normal planning process."
A minister's zoning order, or MZO, is a provincial tool that allows the provincial government to authorize development immediately, overriding local rules for land use planning. The Doug Ford government has issued 33 of these orders since April alone.
On Sunday, the office of Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said in a statement that it has not received any formal requests about the proposal.
"The Minister has been clear that we are committed to protecting the Greenbelt for future generations, and will not consider any proposals to develop on the Greenbelt," Stephanie Bellotto, press secretary for Clark, said in the statement.
Charity plans to build conference facility with hotel
According to its letter to King Township council, the charity would build a 140-bed long term care home with a seniors' independent living wing, a retirement home with limited assisted living and a 10-bed hospice. It wants to redevelop its current retreat house into a conference facility with a hotel and bed and breakfast. And it seeks to turn its large barn into banquet hall.
All of the development would be located on "existing disturbed areas" at what is called The Shrine of Lady of Grace at Marylake, at Keele Street and 15th Sideroad, north of Toronto. The charity owns more than 320 hectares in the area.
On the site, in addition to the retreat house and barn, there is a shrine, chapel, monastery, convent, gift shop and a "Living Rosary Path." The Marylake property as it is known, was originally built by Sir Henry Pellatt, the builder of Casa Loma in Toronto, as a summer home.
In its letter to the council, it says the redevelopment would benefit the community by creating jobs and public recreation areas, by offering a place for seniors and by conserving heritage buildings.
"The redevelopment will occur on existing disturbed areas only, utilizing the entire footprint of the existing buildings as the core of the expansion," the letter reads. "No ecologically significant area or features will be disturbed. This is an environment first proposal."
If King Township were to approve the request for a minister's zoning order, the municipal affairs minister could approve the order and the development could proceed without public consultation or appeal processes.
While development of provincially significant wetlands would have normally engaged the protection of conservation authorities, a new law that received Royal Assent on Tuesday has undermined that protection, according to environmental groups.
Under Schedule 6 of omnibus budget legislation, the Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act (Budget Measures), 2020, conservation authorities must allow development ordered through a MZO and to negotiate an agreement that would allow the developer to pay a fee in exchange for any ecological destruction caused by a project.
Former Toronto Mayor David Crombie and nine other members of the Ontario Greenbelt Council resigned over Schedule 6 last week.
Last week, Minister Clark told reporters that the new law would not impact the Greenbelt. "The MZOs we have been making on non-greenbelt land have been at the request of local municipalities," he said.
Clark said every time a municipality has asked his government to open up the greenbelt "we've given them one simple answer: 'No.'"
Gray said the request by the charity will be a test to see if Clark will keep his word.
"Steve Clark has committed many times to not allowing any kind of development on the Greenbelt. He has not said anything about this site specifically, but he has said he wouldn't approve anything on the Greenbelt," Gray noted.
Gray said the King Township council recently completed its official plan. If it approves the request, he predicted local citizens will not be pleased. If the council doesn't approve, the charity could go to the minister directly.
In a news release, Environmental Defence said of the charity and the land it owns: "They are seeking to convert it to a sprawling multi-use commercial complex, which would include among other things a hotel, conference centre and the now customary token seniors-centre-in-the-middle-of-nowhere.
"These are not permitted uses on this vital and very sensitive part of the Oak Ridges Moraine. Unlike normal municipal planning processes, the issuing of an MZO, as requested, would not provide any opportunity even to assess the wider consequences of building near or within the vital Mary Lake and Seneca Lake wetland complex, let alone to determine how and whether those consequences could be mitigated."
The Augustinian Fathers (Ontario), Inc. has not responded to a request by CBC Toronto for comment.
Destruction of Greenbelt threatens health, activist says
Gray said the Greenbelt matters to the health of Ontario. "I think the important elements of this to remember are that the Greenbelts and properties like this are the best remaining areas of forest river protection wetland that we have," he said.
"And I think everyone has experienced a desperation, frankly, to get out of the house and be able to enjoy some of these areas during the pandemic that we're in," he continued.
"As well, where this property is located really is at the top of our rivers. That's why we protected the Greenbelt. It cleans all the water that flows south into Lake Ontario. It keeps the Humber River clean. It keeps it flowing in the summer when it would otherwise dry up," he added.
"It cleans the air and it helps address flooding risks and other threats that are coming because of climate change. We need these natural areas within our region and the destruction of them and the replacement of them with pavement threatens our health."
Susan Walmer, CEO of the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, said the organization is not opposed to the redevelopment of historical buildings, but it is opposed to the process and the fact that appropriate studies have not been done on the proposal for additional development. The organization works with landowners to protect land on the Oak Ridges Moraine and Greenbelt.
"These lands are special because they are in the core area of the Oak Ridges Moraine land trust," she said.
'We need to hold the line,' Greenbelt advocate says
Walmer said fast tracking development through approval of council and the issuing of a minister's zoning order is not an appropriate development process.
"The owners with their consultants would have to do numerous studies to look at the impacts to the water system, to the natural features, to all of the ecological features on the land. Moving ahead with this MZO order would bypass all of that process," Walmer said.
She said she hopes residents write letters to council asking it to say no to the proposal on Monday.
"We're counting on our local government not to approve this process going forward and then counting on the provincial government to uphold the local decision," she said. "This is the first MZO on the Oak Ridges Moraine and Greenbelt and we need to hold the line. This is precious land."
Public needs to have a say, councillor says
Coun. Debbie Schaefer, who represents Ward 5 in King Township, said she is concerned that a major project is coming to council without any environmental impact studies. The Greenbelt, a "critical natural heritage asset," is the source of drinking water for thousands of people, she said.
Schaefer said the process is precluding public consultation. There is a subdivision south of the development and people who live there will not be allowed to have any say. "They should be given the chance," she said.
She said the township itself has not had time to make an educated decision on the project and letters are already "flowing in" to council.
But she added that the proposal is not without its merits, especially the redevelopment of existing historical buildings.
"It needs to be done in the right way. We need to do the assessments of the environmental impact, of the amount of activity that is proposed on this sensitive terrain. But yes, there are very positive things in it."
With files from Angelina King, Mike Crawley, Ieva Lucs