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Dan O’Reilly, living on the farm that’s been in his family for 180 years, holds a framed photo of his grandfather standing on the same spot he now stands on.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Much of Caledon, Ont., a mostly rural expanse northwest of Toronto, is a mix of muddy farm fields, horse stables, one-off seventies-era ranch-style houses, the odd dilapidated barn, imposing new-looking mansions and tree-obscured old-money country estates. A collection of historic village centres sit at increasingly busy crossroads. Every so often along its main arteries, a vast quarry or a brand-new subdivision springs into view.

Large amounts of this landscape are inside the province’s protected Greenbelt. But many farms outside that zone have long been owned by numbered companies, developers or speculators. Some warn this is the next frontier for sprawl in the Greater Toronto Area: according to the town’s new Official Plan, Caledon expects to balloon to 300,000 residents from 80,000 over the next 30 years.

How Caledon manages that growth, many say, hinges on the Progressive Conservative government’s proposed 52-kilometre Highway 413. The highway would carve right through what is now the municipality’s farmland and country roads – including those Greenbelt lands – on its way to connect with Highway 400 in Vaughan to the east. Even though the project still faces a federal impact assessment, the government has already installed “Future Site of Highway 413″ signs in Caledon on Highway 10.

Critics charge the plan, a centrepiece of PC Leader Doug Ford’s re-election campaign, is being driven by big developers with PC ties and land along the route in Caledon and elsewhere that is poised to shoot up in value as the project goes ahead. Many environmentalists warn the result will be a Caledon that keeps on sprawling with new car-dependent suburbs – but on steroids. Some warn the resulting pressure to grow along the route could even push development into the Greenbelt itself.

But 413 supporters say the town is bound to grow regardless and needs the highway to cope, even if it plans for denser, transit-friendly communities. Otherwise, they say, its existing roads will be overwhelmed with commuters and cargo trucks.

Highway 413 project route

study area

JANE ST.

Preferred route

Vaughan

Bolton

Caledon

400

HWY. 50

AIRPORT RD.

407

Brampton

DIXIE RD.

410

QUEN ST.

STEELES AVE.

Toronto

427

Georgetown

QEW

401

403

0

4

Lake

Ontario

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

highway413.ca

Highway 413 project route

study area

JANE ST.

Preferred route

Vaughan

Bolton

Caledon

400

HWY. 50

AIRPORT RD.

407

Brampton

DIXIE RD.

410

QUEN ST.

STEELES AVE.

Toronto

427

Georgetown

QEW

401

403

0

4

Lake

Ontario

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS;

highway413.ca

JANE ST.

Highway 413 project route

study area

Preferred route

Vaughan

Bolton

Caledon

400

HWY. 50

AIRPORT RD.

407

Brampton

DIXIE RD.

410

QUEN ST.

STEELES AVE.

Toronto

427

Georgetown

QEW

401

403

0

4

Lake

Ontario

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; highway413.ca

On the front lines of the battle is Dan O’Reilly, 74, who says his Caledon farm, which sits just 1.5 kilometres from the 413′s proposed route, has been in his family since 1842 – and is going nowhere. He lives in the old farmhouse and rents the fields to a farmer who grows corn and soybeans. Over the years, he said, he has ignored about 20 phone calls from developers interested in his property.

These days, Mr. O’Reilly has been trying to mobilize opposition to Highway 413, handing out yellow and red “Stop the 413″ lawn signs and organizing road protests. In 2020, Mr. O’Reilly and his brother, with whom he co-owns the land, obtained a conservation easement, which prevents the property from being rezoned by private developers. (While the move protects the land, it also lowered its value.)

“If my father held onto this all his life, and it wasn’t very easy for him, I don’t think I have the right to sell it,” he said, his voice catching with emotion.

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Caledon’s council and its mayor, Allan Thompson, have long made Highway 413 a key priority. Peel Region (of which Caledon is a part, along with Brampton and Mississauga) recently voted against it. Mr. Thompson appeared alongside Mr. Ford last fall, when he stood in front of a parking lot of heavy equipment to vow that his new highway – still subject to the federal environmental impact assessment – would be built.

The mayor has more recently suggested that he and the town have been pushing for the province’s environmental assessment to proceed, not the superhighway itself. He told the crowd last November he approved of including a transit link. Mr. Thompson, who is not seeking re-election this fall, declined through his office to be interviewed.

Critics say Mr. Ford has over his term reversed years of effort to contain sprawl in places like Caledon. His government lowered its growth plan’s population-density requirements, making it easier to build more spread-out communities. And it’s forcing municipalities to designate more farmland for development.

The PCs also issued scores of what are known as ministerial zoning orders, or MZOs, which are unappealable fast-tracked approvals for developers, in some cases on environmentally sensitive lands. The PCs say the orders were needed to get more housing built and speed up the construction of things such as long-term care homes. Critics say a disproportionate number of MZOs have gone to large PC donors.

Jenni Le Forestier, a Caledon resident who co-chairs the grassroots group Stop Sprawl Peel and ran for the Green Party during the last federal election, said both Caledon council and the Ford government are bending over backward to give developers who own land near the 413′s proposed route what they want.

“When you look at the big picture, it’s really about developer private interests – building these disconnected subdivisions across prime farmland and connecting them with a highway,” she said, adding that new logistics warehousing sites are also being approved, in anticipation of the 413.

Signs against the proposed Highway 413, placed on Mr. O’Reilly’s property in Bolton, Ont.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

She points to one of the Ford government’s early MZOs in Caledon, from July, 2020, which approved housing for 7,000 more people not far from the proposed highway, on farmland north of Mayfield Road. A list of major developers are involved, some of whom have given thousands of dollars to support the PCs. The government has repeatedly denied that donations play a role in MZOs. It also says it approves the orders when approved by a local council, as this one was. But the order came after Peel Region had put off approving Caledon’s plans, pending a wider review of development lands.

While much of the project is labelled “low density,” it has “medium density” pockets and published plans say it will be home to about 70 people per hectare. That’s above the PC government’s watered-down density requirements. But is still below the 80 people per hectare planners say is needed to justify bus service frequent enough – every 10 to 15 minutes – to convince people to use cars less often.

PC incumbent Sylvia Jones, a minister in Mr. Ford’s cabinet, won handily here in Dufferin-Caledon in 2018 with 53 per cent of the vote, so it’s unclear how much of an effect the 413 will have in the provincial election on June 2. But Caledon’s mayoral election this fall looks set to be a battle over the highway and the influence of developers.

Local politics in Caledon are notoriously rough-and-tumble, with accusations over ties to developers and smear campaigns. In 2016, the mayor was exonerated by a judge who ruled that a complainant had “failed to present any evidence” of a conflict-of-interest stemming from the $9.4-million sale of his farmland to a developer. The husband of a previous mayor was assaulted in the couple’s driveway in 2008.

Caledon Councillor Jennifer Innis, who is also a Peel regional councillor, is now seeking the mayor’s office – and she supports the 413. This is despite her role as chairwoman of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, in which she clashed with the Ford government over its use of MZOs on protected wetlands. (She is also a long-time Progressive Conservative.) She insists Caledon has “always stood up to developers,” but is at a turning point.

Eighty per cent of Caledon will stay protected, she said, but how the remaining 20 per cent grows is now in the balance. She argued the highway, or a transportation “corridor” of some kind, is needed in the future – even if Caledon grows, as she said it should, in a way that allows for public transit and cycling. Without it, she warned, Caledon’s roads will face an onslaught of truck traffic and require major expansion.

“Do you eat? Because all your food comes by truck. Do you buy things? One of the things that people don’t understand is, the Region of Peel is the largest transportation hub in North America,” she said, adding that she has pushed for a rail line in what she calls the 413 corridor.

She said some in Caledon oppose the highway because they think if it’s cancelled, Caledon can stay the same. That, she said, is unrealistic: “The growth is coming. Immigration isn’t slowing down anytime soon.”

Ms. Innis faces long-time Caledon and regional councillor Annette Groves, who represents the Bolton area and has been a vocal opponent of the 413. Ms. Groves, also a PC member, says many in Caledon oppose the idea of paving environmentally sensitive farmland for a highway. She charges that the developers who will benefit from the highway “are calling all the shots.”

“It will take away from what Caledon really is all about, and why people move to Caledon and why people like living here in Caledon,” Ms. Groves said. “You run a 400-series highway through the community, it takes away from all of that.”

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