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Steve Clark, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, at the Queens Park Legislature, in Toronto on Nov. 16, 2022.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Environmental groups have launched a court challenge of the Ontario government’s move to force the City of Hamilton to allow housing to be built on thousands of hectares of farmland on its outskirts.

Lawyers for the group Ecojustice, acting for activists with Environmental Defence, are asking for a three-judge panel of the Ontario Divisional Court to quash a decision in November from Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, alleging it violates the province’s own planning legislation.

After a year-long standoff with the city, Mr. Clark rewrote Hamilton’s official plan and required it to designate all of its remaining 2,200 additional rural hectares for urban development over the next 30 years. It’s one of a series of moves he has made in the name of building housing that has sparked opposition from municipalities and environmentalists, including recent changes to allow housing on some protected Greenbelt lands.

His November decision overrode a 2021 vote by Hamilton council, which had after a lengthy local debate and a concerted campaign by environmentalists decided overwhelmingly against the expansion. However, to meet provincial growth targets, even Hamilton’s own city planners had originally recommended designating 1,310 hectares on the city’s outskirts for development.

The move was made amid a provincial process requiring municipalities to revise their official plans to earmark enough new land for development until 2051. Hamilton council’s plan would have required 80 per cent of new growth to be accommodated through intensification, or development in already-built-up areas.

Ontario’s Planning Act gives Mr. Clark the power to rewrite municipal official plans. But in an 11-page application for judicial review of the decision, lawyers with Ecojustice say Mr. Clark’s action was “unreasonable and is lacking in transparency, intelligibility and justification.”

Ecojustice says the minister must abide by the province’s overall policy statement on planning and its Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which sets density targets for municipalities – and that he failed to do so.

Ecojustice also says Mr. Clark provided “no public reasons” for his decision. Mr. Clark had previously warned that he could override Hamilton’s move to ensure enough housing gets built. Last year, he had also said he might refer it to the province’s land tribunal for a decision, calling Hamilton’s official plan the product of an “anti-growth and anti-housing ideology.”

Mr. Clark’s press secretary, Victoria Podbielski, said the minister would not comment in detail as the matter is now before the courts.

“It is expected that the City of Hamilton’s population will grow to more than 800,000 people by 2051,” she said in an e-mail on Monday. “That is why, after careful consideration, the minister took the necessary action to accommodate this growth and allow for more desperately needed housing to be built.”

The legal action names both the Minister of Municipal Affairs and the City of Hamilton itself as respondents.

Andrea Horwath, the former provincial NDP opposition leader who was elected Hamilton’s mayor in the fall, said her council would consult the city’s lawyers on what to do. But she said the city’s position is obviously in support of the previous council’s plan. The mayor also said Hamilton has 34,000 housing units inside its old urban boundary that are approved but not yet built, enough to last a decade.

“There is something called local democracy that I think people want to have respected,” Ms. Horwath said.

Mike Collins-Williams, the chief executive officer of the West End Home Builders’ Association, a local development-industry group that lobbied for the boundary expansion, dismissed the legal action as a “publicity stunt.”

He said Hamilton needs to both increase density inside its boundaries and build more housing on its farmland, in order to keep up with demand not just for apartments and condos but also for single-family houses with backyards. He argued developers no longer build 1980s-style sprawl and that the new areas would be compact and made up of a mix of housing types, such as townhouses.

Mr. Collins-Williams also said council had failed to live up to its commitment to increase density inside the city in its version of the official plan, noting Mr. Clark also eliminated a 30-storey height limit on buildings when he redrew the urban boundary, while also adding more density along transit routes. (Ms. Horwath said the height limit had been aimed at preserving views of the Hamilton Escarpment, and that other cities with scenic views have similar rules.)

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said Mr. Clark’s move to develop more farmland would cement a sprawl model of development around Hamilton, an industrial city that has been trying to revitalize and redevelop its downtown.

“The province is trying to force some kind of model from the Rust Belt of the U.S., where you let these urban areas just collapse and you build suburbs around the outside, dependent on cars,” he said.

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