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Toronto Brampton residents fight urban sprawl in historical housing co-op

Mary and Allan Richardson outside their home in Brampton on Feb. 21, 2019.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Over the years, Mary Richardson has seen urban sprawl threatening the northern Brampton, Ont., neighbourhood that her parents helped build 65 years ago as one of the province’s first housing co-operatives.

As new owners of the one- to two-acre lots on Marysfield Drive in the Wildfield area began to subdivide the lots, build larger houses and then sell the properties, she realized her community was losing its history.

“If people want to live in close quarters, they can go almost anywhere else in Brampton for that,” she says. “Why come here and change everything?”

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While the lots now “definitely cost over $1-million,” the new houses “shouldn’t be so big that they cover up the whole lot,” she adds. A daughter of one of two original families left in Marysfield, Ms. Richardson, 58, and her husband live in a small extension to the house her parents built, where her daughter and grandchild now live.

Ms. Richardson said she was floored when some of her neighbours told a series of three public hearings about the area’s development that concluded Feb. 11 that Marysfield “has no history.”

The Marysfield community began after the Second World War, when a close-knit group of young Catholic families took a novel approach to affordable housing in the early 1950s. Homes in Toronto were too expensive, so the 14 families each offered $1,000 for tools and a rural plot of land from the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Among them was a bricklayer, bookkeeper, electrician and a store manager, according to a Brampton Heritage newsletter from 2016. After studying manuals on co-operative housing, they built the neighbourhood at night and on weekends. When the 1,300-square-foot houses were completed a year later, the families drew straws to determine which house each would move into. The street they lived on was designed in the shape of a rosary, to signify their faith.

Janet Muise, a Toronto researcher on the Catholic “home-building” initiative, said the Marysfield example helped shape a growing social movement of Catholic housing efforts in Ontario – an idea developed at St. Francis Xavier University, in Nova Scotia. Soon after Marysfield, “800 families” became members of co-ops in Gatineau, Que., and the Ontario communities of Grimsby, Lindsay and Kingston, among other locations, she said.

Dan O’Reilly, an historian with family ties to Wildfield, said the neighbourhood is “one of the most historic in Ontario," having contributed so largely to the area’s Catholic identity, dating back to 1818.

Over time, though, the homes were eventually sold to new landowners, some of whom sought to subdivide the large lots for development. After the city received a handful of severance applications, it passed an interim control bylaw in February, 2018, to freeze all development until a character study of the area was completed. That freeze was extended last month to January, 2020.

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“If the land is all cut up, nobody will ever know about the history,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “Expansions [must be] in line with the character. ... I don’t want huge monster mansions that don’t fit in.”

Consultants at SGL Planning and Design Ltd., who headed the character study, have since drafted policy and zoning recommendations that consider the neighbourhood’s history, said SGL senior planner David Riley. Presented at the Feb. 11 public hearing, the report recommends Marysfield be identified as a “Residential Character Area” within Brampton’s Official Plan, which would ensure that new developments match the neighbourhood’s original height and width characteristics more closely.

It also suggests the city consider Marysfield a “Cultural Heritage Landscape,” which the Ontario Heritage Trust defines as a location that has “heritage significance” and is “valued by a community.”

Among the report’s zoning advice, SGL suggests that no house exceed about 4,300 square feet, or 10 per cent, of a lot that must remain a minimum of 1 acre.

Nick Cajic, a resident of Marysfield Drive for nearly two decades, said that to build houses so small on lots so large “looks ridiculous,” and feels landowners in Marysfield should have the ability to built however they’d like.

He applied to sever his lot in 2001, and after the City of Brampton halted his application, an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) allowed him to continue. He then sold the severed lot, where a 7,000-square-foot house is now nearing completion.

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“A little bit of history” won’t stop homeowners from developing the area “sooner or later,” he said. “A couple [of homeowners] can complain, but they’re going to get old, and they’re going to [either] die or [move to] a seniors’ home, and then their properties will go up for sale anyways.”

Six landowners on Marysfield Drive have appealed the city’s control bylaw to Ontario’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, which replaced the OMB early last year.

Ms. Richardson said the consultants “really hit the mark” on allowing the area to retain its open-concept feel, in their recommendations. Brampton’s city council will make a decision on whether to adopt the report this spring.

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