The province is selling out on vaunted green space that Premier Dalton McGuinty vowed to protect, argues a community taking on a proposed gas-fired power plant in the middle of Ontario's Greenbelt.
And tiny King township is using the province's own Greenbelt legislation in a last-ditch attempt to fight the generator.
"I find it completely ironic that we're having to defend provincial legislation and provincial rules and regulations against another provincial ministry," said Jamie Reaume, head of the Holland Marsh Growers Association.
He represents farmers in Holland Marsh - the bowl-like flood plain, vegetable patch of Ontario and what he calls one of the most heavily regulated pieces of land in the province.
It's also 500 metres away from the proposed 350-megawatt gas-fired power plant the Ontario Power Authority wants to see completed by 2014. That power is needed - immediately - to satisfy a growing, energy-thirsty population in northern York Region, the power authority argues.
But the plant would also be the first in Ontario's Greenbelt, whose fifth anniversary the province celebrated this year. And its vocal opponents argue the province isn't following its own strict rules designed to preserve that increasingly rare green space. So they have to.
A hearing at the Ontario Municipal Board, a provincial mediator that normally settles development disputes between local governments and third parties, starts Tuesday. The board will determine whether the power plant's site plan should go ahead and, more crucially, whether the plans contravene the province's own Greenbelt legislation.
The OPA argues that there's nowhere else to put what they say is a much-needed "peaker" generator to address spikes in the energy needs of a regional population growing far more rapidly than the rest of the province.
The relatively clean gas-fired technology is becoming increasingly popular as the province tries to make good on its vow to eliminate coal-fired generators while putting planned nuclear expansions and refurbishments on hold. They're also a significant part of the Green Energy Act, which has won environmental accolades continent-wide.
King township's mayor Margaret Black argues that the plant won't help her residents and could indeed go elsewhere. Moreover, she argues the proposal would violate the province's own Greenbelt plan, which has strict criteria for the kind of infrastructure development allowed to encroach on the protected rural and agricultural areas.
Farmers and residents in the area aren't satisfied with the environmental assessment that gave Pristine Energy's project a stamp of approval: The proposed plant is too close for comfort to a flood plain and to Holland Marsh's rich agricultural areas.
But environmental lawyer David Donnelly says whether or not the plant violates the law of Ontario's Greenbelt, it violates the principle of keeping a small part of southern Ontario wild.
"Every time you nibble at the footprint of the Greenbelt, you undermine its integrity. This plant won't destroy the Greenbelt, but it undermines the sacred principle that we preserve outright a very small part of southern Ontario called the Greenbelt. And this violates that. And, worse, it's unnecessary."
King Township has been opposed to the very idea of building in the Greenbelt since the province put out a request for proposals in January, 2008. The latest stage in its battle is in many ways a last resort: Now that the project has passed the province's environmental assessment, said Ontario Power Authority spokesman Ben Chin, the only thing standing in the way of construction is the building permit the city has refused to grant.
The provincial Greenbelt plan stipulates that any infrastructure built in a designated area must serve the local community and economy, minimize negative effects and must be without viable alternatives.
Ms. Black said that's not the case now: If the region needs a power plant that badly, she argues, it should be in an existing industrial area.
But Mr. Chin said the northern York Region's population is growing faster than the rest of the province, and the power authority has no leeway when it comes to picking a location.
"The northern York Region is below international standards in terms of system security or reliability in terms of their transmission lines. … When you have a local area that's not stable it puts the entire area around it at risk," he said. "The government's Greenbelt legislation allows for new generators to supply communities within the Greenbelt."
"Peaker" power plants are rarely popular with local residents: One need only look to ongoing battles over similar generators in Oakville and Leslieville. Opponents of power plants designed to be of use only 10 to 15 per cent of the time when demand is greatest, point to dipping recessionary energy use. Even with the economy picking up, they argue, historical energy-use trends will stop their upward climb as energy efficiency grows.
Challenges to restrictive Greenbelt legislation aren't new, either. But this case is different, Mr. Donnelly said: In those cases, the province stepped in to defend the preserved parkland.
"If you can put a gas-fired plant in the Greenbelt, then what about a waste transfer station? What about an EMS emergency station? It emboldens future regimes that might not be as sympathetic to the Greenbelt to point to this as an instance where people were willing to compromise something the public certainly felt was untouchable."