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Heading north on Keele Street from the flatlands of Maple, a horizon of residential rooftops gives way, finally, to the hills and hollows of King Township.

Herein lies King City, a little town with a big name, where the Humber River is small enough to step over and the town hall sits in a strip mall.

As rural as it seems, you can feel the creep of the city at the corner of Keele and King Road, where the roar of tractor-trailers cancels any hope for a quiet country morning.

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You can also feel it in the tenor of King City's loudest, if not longest, continuing debate: whether to connect the town's 4,800 residents to the York Durham Sewage System, otherwise known as the Big Pipe.

The proposed sewer has been a conduit for complaints from both sides in a classic conflict: those who want King City to grow and those who do not.

After a series of studies, hearings, court rulings and appeals, the Big Pipe is closer than ever to being a done deal. That's why its detractors see Monday's municipal election as a chance -- possibly their last -- to bury the plan once and for all.

"This election, more than any other election, is crucial for the future of King Township," says Jane Underhill, an anti-growth advocate and former councillor who lost her bid for the township mayoralty in 2000. "People do not want the urban growth that surrounds us."

Ms. Underhill, who is running again for council, is of course referring to the sprawl that has engulfed the once-rural communities that ring Toronto. To her mind, King City is a final frontier on the edge of the GTA, near the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine.

"King City is just like holding a bridge in a war," she says, "a key point."

It's a war she had no inkling of fighting when she arrived here in 1959 with her husband and new baby, to escape the city and build a new home on virgin land -- an irony Ms. Underhill acknowledges.

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"We were ignorant at that time," she says, wheeling her car into the driveway of that same house after a brief tour of King City this week.

"We realize that we, in all likelihood, shouldn't be here either, but we are. At least we should be able to learn from our mistakes, shouldn't we?"

Ms. Underhill avoided politics for more than 30 years, but her alarms went off when developers started assembling land and talk turned to replacing King City's private septic systems with full sewer service in the early 1990s.

She formed a citizen's group that has been locked in battle with the township and York Region councils ever since, particularly over their contention that the sewer is needed to prevent any threats to health from leaky septic systems -- a scientifically questionable argument she sees as a Trojan horse.

On election night, the group's target will be Mayor Margaret Black, who defeated Ms. Underhill in 2000 by a scant 25 votes. Ms. Black's rival now is sewer opponent Leah Werry, but if Ms. Black is worried, she isn't showing it.

"It's a done deal," she says. "All I can say [to sewer opponents]is good luck."

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Calling the proposed sewer "a little pipe," Ms. Black dismisses the outcry as "simply fear-mongering by a group of people, and I do not know the motive."

The size of the planned pipe, along with environmental designations, will limit King City's population to 12,000 over the next 23 years, and the township's to 30,000, up from 19,500, she says.

"That's very, very slow growth," and not at all comparable to the sprawl in much-larger Vaughan or Richmond Hill, she adds.

King City's businesspeople seem to be all for some modest growth.

"There has to be a little bit of growth, but controlled," says Liz Buck, a florist on Keele Street.

And, potential health problem or not, the sewer would solve one problem that no one here disputes -- the smell that wafts from septic systems, which "is just ghastly sometimes," Ms. Buck says.

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The big question, of course, is whether Ms. Black's council can keep development in check once the pipe is in the ground. That's a leap of faith that people like Ms. Buck seem reluctant to take.

"Hopefully she'll live by her word, if she gets in again," she says.

"It's hard to say. Do you ever trust a politician?"

areinhart@globeandmail.ca

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