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In the karate school of regional politics, a white belt is not what you think it is - the mark of a deferential beginner. Instead, the term describes a lawless borderland where the sparring is desperate and dirty, usually beginning with a quick sucker punch followed by fusillades of mud.

Just ask Caledon Mayor Marolyn Morrison, whose scenic rural township has become the latest hot zone in the Greater Toronto white-belt wars. Mayor Morrison now lives under the constant surveillance of a private security firm after an unknown assailant bushwhacked her husband, John, as he returned home one day earlier this month, leaving him with two black eyes.

The campaign of harassment, which culminated in the assault, has resulted in one arrest of a man from Woodbridge, the sprawl south of Caledon, for uttering threats and attempted extortion of Mr. Morrison, a high school teacher. Both incidents stemmed from Caledon council's firm refusal to allow its own bulging "village" of Bolton to explode Woodbridge-like into the surrounding countryside, according to Mayor Morrison.

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"We've seen some stuff like this before, like flat tires and key scratches on cars," the Mayor commented. "But never has it escalated to actual assaults. Honestly, we should be appalled."

While the Morrisons' two sons serve abroad with the Canadian Forces, a private security firm now guards the Caledon homestead. "Our home is like a fortress now," the Mayor said. "We don't have our own life any more."

Blame the white belt: an irregular, discontinuous stretch of undeveloped land across the top of the city, defined by sprawling suburbs to the south and the celebrated provincial greenbelt to the north. "We don't know what else to call it," Mayor Morrison said. But it certainly is causing problems.

One reason the greenbelt took hold so quickly is that it is generally far enough away from existing suburbs not to discomfit speculators betting on short-term sprawl. The plan acknowledges that the city will have to grow out as well as up in coming decades, and left plenty of room for that to happen.

The result is an increasingly intense struggle over the future of those lands, with outgunned municipal politicians currently alone on the front lines.

The struggle in Caledon focuses on the former village of Bolton, which has exploded into a mini-Woodbridge with a population of 26,000 people. Led by Mayor Morrison, Caledon council has taken a hard line against its future expansion. But Bolton, led by local business people and one developer with a huge stake in the farm fields bordering the town, is fighting back.

The dirty fighting in Caledon is not unique. To the east of Toronto, Durham Region has been going through the same thing for years, with many of the same tactics. A favourite is to distribute poison pamphlets in the name of phony community groups. That one was good enough to unseat former Tory cabinet minister Janet Ecker in the 2003 election.

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Developers in Simcoe County to the north of the greenbelt have used intimidating lawsuits to great effect.

In Caledon, one developer allegedly helped set up a new community newspaper that attacks Mayor Morrison mercilessly.

As nasty as they can be, such skirmishes mark a historic moment, according to Tony Coombes, director of the Neptis Foundation, a land-use think tank that recently received an award from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation.

Provincial legislation requires all municipalities surrounding Toronto to establish firm boundaries to last until 2031, he explained, with accompanying plans to accommodate 40 per cent of future growth within existing built-up areas.

Once the job is finished, within a year's time, the same laws will make those plans permanent - and the white belt disappears.

"It's not a free-for-all," Mr. Coombes said. "We have a formidable apparatus for protecting the so-called white lands. Now it needs to be used to effect."In the optimistic view, the white-belt wars are simply the last hurrah of the age of unrestricted sprawl - a mop-up operation conducted by the triumphant generals of resurgent regional planning.

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We'll see.

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