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The Downsview Park area is seen in Toronto, in an April 11, 2018, file photo.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government wants municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond to start designating enough land to accommodate all new development expected until 2051, a move welcomed by the building industry but that critics charge locks in decades of renewed suburban sprawl.

Municipalities subject to the province’s Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which covers the Greater Toronto Area and the region that surrounds it from Niagara to Peterborough, are already required to designate enough land for the housing and workplaces they expect to need by 2041, based on population forecasts from the government.

Now, they could be required to set aside even more land in advance to accommodate projected new growth for an additional decade, under proposed changes that Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark is releasing on Tuesday for a 45-day public-consultation period.

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In an interview, Mr. Clark defended launching the complex planning changes amid the uncertainty that surrounds the province owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it is urgent. We are laying the groundwork now so that municipalities and our other partners in different sectors are prepared for that economic recovery post-COVID-19,” Mr. Clark said.

Victor Doyle, a retired senior provincial planner who was one of the key architects of both the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan, said the province’s approach ignores the fact it has been urbanizing land at only half the rate anticipated when the Growth Plan was first launched in 2006.

“Approving additional land will do nothing in relation to post-COVID recovery as it is decades away from being developed – if ever,” Mr. Doyle said.

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said the existing projections for 2041 inflate the expected population growth expected in the suburban municipalities that ring Toronto.

He warns that the new proposal, coupled with the Progressive Conservative government’s new, looser rules on population density brought in last year, will mean even more land is earmarked for spread-out suburbs in the “whitebelt,” or the farmland that remains between built-up areas and the province’s protected Greenbelt.

Mr. Gray also warns that a provision in the latest proposal to allow for more quarries in “natural heritage areas” will stir up conflict.

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“You are just setting free the dogs of sprawl, based on population projections that are pure fiction,” Mr. Gray said. “It’s a big gift to land speculators who have bought up farms in the whitebelt, because once you get [the land] redesignated, its value goes up [by] orders of magnitude.”

Asked about sprawl, Mr. Clark said he is committed to concentrating high-density development around major transit stations and that his policies will provide a mix of housing types. Asked about the criticism of the Growth Plan’s projections, he said the point of the consultation is to receive feedback on the changes, which include three different statistical scenarios for the growth expected by 2051.

Kevin Eby, the former director of community planning with the Region of Waterloo, has analyzed the government’s 2041 Growth Plan projections, comparing them with more conservative numbers based on the 2016 census from the government’s own Ministry of Finance. His analysis shows that while Toronto and Peel Region have exceeded their Growth Plan projections for population and jobs, other areas have fallen well short.

Durham Region alone, he writes in a policy paper, could see 297,000 fewer new residents in 2041 than the Growth Plan predicts, if the finance numbers are right. As a result, Mr. Eby argues, the region would have designated 4,000 hectares for residential development that never materializes – leaving it short hundreds of millions of dollars in development charges to pay for infrastructure such as roads and sewers.

Joe Vaccaro, the chief executive officer of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, said the industry has been asking for the extension of the Growth Plan horizon for a simple reason: He says it can take up to 20 years to get a big development through the planning process and into construction.

“Why not give municipalities the opportunity to plan ahead?” Mr. Vaccaro said, arguing the industry has adopted the goal of building complete communities and abandoned “1975-style sprawl” development.

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