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The Ontario government plans to loosen the density targets in its Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe in the name of building more housing more quickly, but critics warn the move simply gives a green light to new suburban sprawl.

The proposals, announced on Tuesday, would scale back complex rules that force municipalities in the region to plan for denser, more compact communities that are easier to serve with public transit – rules that had just been tightened in 2017 by the previous Liberal government. The new proposals would also make it easier for municipalities to designate new greenfield land for development.

While environmentalists say the reforms will mean a return to spread-out communities of single, detached homes that are next-to-impossible to serve with public transit, Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark said the proposals were a response to a litany of complaints from municipalities and developers about the Growth Plan.

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Many, he said, complained that the last set of density targets were too stringent, particularly for smaller communities without transit systems already in place. The new targets will also vary across municipalities, based on size and proximity to large urban centres.

“This government recognizes that one size does not fit all,” Mr. Clark said in an interview.

Mr. Clark argues that his government remains committed to the principles behind the Growth Plan, noting the reforms will also allow for larger intensification areas for new development around major transit stations.

The Growth Plan, introduced by the Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty in 2005, was brought in alongside the 7,200-square-kilometre protected Greenbelt of farmland and woodland that stretches around Toronto from Niagara to Peterborough.

Premier Doug Ford’s government has already run into controversy over the Greenbelt, with a bill introduced late last year that would allow the Minister of Municipal Affairs to give municipalities permission to override its rules. But Mr. Clark has said he would not approve anything that would “undermine the Greenbelt.” And the current proposals for the Growth Plan, he says, have no impact on the Greenbelt itself.

Joe Vaccaro, head of the Ontario Home Builders' Association, welcomed what he called “practical” reforms, and pledged that they would mean faster approvals and the construction of more housing. But critics say the changes are a major watering down of the Growth Plan.

Victor Doyle, a retired provincial planner who was one of the key architects of both the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan, said the new targets, when implemented, will see densities as low as those built in the 1990s, long before the Growth Plan.

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“It’s a big sop to the greenfield [developers], a big step back,” said Mr. Doyle, who has spoken out to defend the Growth Plan and Greenbelt during his career, in defiance of his government bosses.

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, said the changes will see municipalities expand much more easily into greenfield sites in the so-called “white belt” – the land between built-up areas and the protected greenbelt.

“Basically, it is going back to the sprawl model,” Mr. Gray said.

The current density target mandates that new development on greenfield sites must encompass 80 people or jobs per hectare, a level that provincial planners say can sustain bus service that comes every 10 to 15 minutes.

Under the new proposed rules, Hamilton, Peel, Waterloo and York Region will only have to plan for 60 people and jobs per hectare. Other municipalities, including Barrie, Brantford and Guelph as well as Halton and Durham Regions, will have a target of 50 residents and jobs per hectare. Even smaller areas will have a target of just 40 residents and jobs per hectare.

The proposed changes also rewrite the Growth Plan’s introduction, deleting the phrase “urban sprawl” in favour of “unmanaged growth,” as well as substituting a “cleaner environment” for a “clean and healthy environment” and taking out a reference to “social equity.” The rewritten sections also stress the need for housing supply that “reflects market demand.”

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Also on Tuesday, Mr. Clark announced the appointment of a pair of advisers – former senior Ontario bureaucrat Michael Fenn and former Waterloo Regional chairman Ken Seiling – to review the province’s regional governments. The review will examine Ontario’s eight regional municipalities (Halton, York, Durham, Waterloo, Niagara, Peel, Muskoka District, and Oxford County), the County of Simcoe, and their lower-tier municipalities.

That review, promised last summer as Mr. Ford’s government unilaterally slashed Toronto’s city council almost in half in the middle of an election, will hear from local politicians and citizens, Mr. Clark said, before he announces a decision on possible reforms in August.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said this week that he believed the PC government’s review was looking at all options, including slashing regional government altogether or amalgamating the lower-tier municipalities around Toronto into larger cities. Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie has called for reforms and even independence from Peel Region for her city.

Mr. Clark said he had no preconceived notions, other than looking for ways to make regional government more efficient and avoiding duplication.

The review panel was announced just as a group of mayors from the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton met with Toronto Mayor John Tory at Toronto City Hall. Among them was newly elected Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, the former PC leader forced out by scandal before Mr. Ford took the PC leadership and became Premier.

He said he did not see the regional review, which could mean changes to his city’s place in Peel Region, as a potential attack from his former rival at Queen’s Park: “I wouldn’t assume any inappropriate motivations for the change. I think it is always healthy to look at the efficiency of wings of government.”

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