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On the morning after a nail-biter night at the polls, a sidewalk sandwich board posed a pertinent question to the people of Oakville.

"What's worse?" the sign read outside Murron's Cabinetree, an upscale gift shop on Lakeshore Road. "To win by 12, or to lose by 12?"

Those who regularly stroll Oakville's downtown are used to the clever quips that store owner Murray Farncombe writes on his sign each day.

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But that question could linger longer than most and might defy answers until the next municipal election comes around in 2006.

In Monday's election, Mayor Ann Mulvale barely held on to win her sixth consecutive term, outpolling political newcomer and anti-sprawl activist Rob Burton by just 12 votes.

Mr. Burton will ask for a recount, but regardless of the outcome, it's clear that voters are split on who is best able to guide the once-quiet lakeside town through a coming onslaught of growth.

"There really didn't appear to be a winner," Mr. Farncombe said, "and it's tough to call the other fellow a loser with such a low margin."

If all current development proposals go ahead, the town's 150,000 residents will see 105,000 new neighbours. Concerns over how that growth is managed, more than any other issue, propelled Mr. Burton to within striking distance of Ms. Mulvale, and placed four green-minded candidates on Oakville's 12-member council.

"There were a lot of people looking for a way to try to change the course of the town," Mr. Burton said this week, relaxing in his spacious home not far from the lake. "We should have a civil and respectful exchange over the next three years, whoever is mayor."

Mr. Burton, 57, was a journalist, director and producer before he struck gold as founder of the popular YTV children's network in 1988. His wealth, evident in the navy-blue Cadillac in the driveway and the gleaming black baby-grand piano in his living room, allowed him to retire in 1994 and flee Toronto for Oakville with his wife and their three children.

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With time on his hands, Mr. Burton jumped into community work, but before long found his first big environmental fight when a power plant was proposed for Winston Churchill Boulevard. He formed the Clear the Air Coalition and managed to stall the project in 1999.

At the same time, he and a vocal core of residents watched with increasing alarm as developers brought forward plans to turn 3,075 hectares of land north of Dundas Street over to new homes and industries.

They felt the old council, led by Ms. Mulvale, was too friendly to developers and didn't fight hard enough to protect the Trafalgar Moraine and other natural features.

"Oakville took a course of urban sprawl extravaganza," Mr. Burton said.

In 2000, residents responded by electing Alan Elgar, a founder of the Oakvillegreen environmental group, to council.

This time, two more Oakvillegreen members, plus a former Green Party candidate, were elected in addition to Mr. Burton's near-victory.

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Ms. Mulvale has faced challengers in only three of her six mayoral campaigns since 1988, and won the first five by comfortable margins. She rejects the idea that Monday's results were an indictment of her performance. She characterized her near-loss as a misdirected show of frustration by voters who don't understand that when it comes to growth, local councils are bound by provincial rules that give developers the edge.

Premier Dalton McGuinty learned this, she said, when he campaigned on a promise to halt development on the Oak Ridges Moraine, only to be forced to back off after he was elected last month.

Mr. Burton, who has never held office, has yet to learn the same lesson, she said. "It's easy when you're not the incumbent to reach conclusions and make commitments," she said.

Mr. Burton may soon get a chance to test his rival's thesis, if a recount tips the scales in his favour.

Either way, Oakville residents should be prepared to see a lot of Mr. Burton in the future.

"Win or lose, I've got a lot of work to do over the next three years to win the next election," he said. "Win or lose, I will be fully engaged in defending the residents from those who want us to pay the costs for inflicting growth upon us."

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