Thursday, July 9, 2009

Barrie should grow up, not out.

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner:

In a two-sided spat like the one between Barrie and Innisfil/Simcoe County about growth, we assume one side is right and the other wrong, and once one wins, the issue is settled. But sometimes it’s not so simple – sometimes both sides are wrong, no matter who “wins”.

Barrie’s stated need for southern expansion is for new industry, so-called “employment land”, to offset existing residential development. Certainly Barrie must re-balance employment and assessment. Quite simply, we need more jobs in Barrie. But will the Bill 196 border change meet that need?

The face of Ontario’s economy is changing. The era of huge sprawling new manufacturing complexes is over. Industry in Ontario is in retreat – moving south or overseas, or just shutting down. Barrie has seen employer after employer leave; industrial-zoned land sits idle or is flipped to commercial use. Rising oil prices will eventually bring industry back to Ontario, but on a smaller scale to serve local rather than global markets. Newer industry is cleaner and quieter than before, so need not be banished to the far fringes of the city. Most of it will fit smaller land parcels like those already available, and may prefer locations close to existing employee homes and amenities. In that light, Barrie already has the land for the industrial needs of a future localizing economy. This would precisely suit the intensification promoted by the City and Ontario’s Places to Grow.

Even stranger, the eastern block of annexation is clearly intended for more residential development, undermining the whole exercise of re-balancing. Barrie’s perceived shortage of residential land is of one type: single-family detached housing. Existing vacant, idle, or under-used land within Barrie’s current borders offers huge potential for a variety of denser uses like apartments (high- or low-rise), condos, townhouses, and especially residential-over-commercial. Barrie is chock-a-block with one-story strip malls or plazas that could very easily be upgraded with affordable housing above stores or offices. This may not meet our current building patterns or zoning, but those are man-made rules, less harmful to change than the facts on the ground: the fields and forests to be destroyed to build yet more south-end subdivisions.

With spirited effort, we could accommodate necessary industrial and residential growth within our existing borders. Or, if Barrie hasn’t room enough for new residents, why are we breaking new ground to the south instead of filling in the blank spaces in Midhurst, just to Barrie’s north? That’s a settlement area already integrated into greater Barrie. With its adopted secondary plan, it would avoid the planning delays involved with the southern moratorium lands. If we intend new residents to work in Barrie instead of commute to the GTA, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to live to the north than the south? That would also relieve pressure on the Lake Simcoe watershed, as the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan urges. The Conservation Authority’s own report bluntly states that this expansion is premature, as it is sure to increase, rather than reduce, harm to the Lake.

So, if Barrie is wrong, does that mean that Innisfil and Simcoe County are right? Actually, no. Their plan, euphemistically calling for “a community of communities”, is a recipe for more unsustainable growth – rural sprawl. The County plan sprinkles population growth to just about every town or village, yet none of these are likely to become denser as a result; in fact, quite the opposite. Most or all of that “planned” growth is aimed at communities with no transit, some without even municipal sewage treatment. The province is fully justified to reject this plan and re-distribute the majority of planned growth to Barrie, Orillia, and the larger towns of Alliston, Bradford and Collingwood in its Strategic Vision for Growth.

Having been assigned that growth, I challenge those “target” cities and towns to do everything in their powers to fit it into current settlement areas. In fact, they should look at seeking additional powers from the province to remove unnecessary barriers to healthy and sustainable density and intensification. We must learn to live sustainably and stop sprawling; there is no better time to begin than today. Re-think annexation.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

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