A new GO train station, with lots of people living in a variety of high-density housing surrounding it, sounds good – right? But after you scratch the surface of a recent decision by the provincial government for Innisfil, you’ll see it’s far from good.
The Innisfil “Orbit” development is centred on a proposed new station to be built on the existing Barrie GO train line and is located between two small towns, Lefroy and Alcona, which are both shoreline communities of Lake Simcoe.
WHAT IS THE ORBIT?
So what is the Orbit?
If you believe the pictures, it’s an idealized round garden-city style community in which everyone has a cool job, with tasty micro-brew available downstairs, and where plants grow lushly off buildings. The trains must be silent in this fantasy.
Here’s what I think it actually is: a brilliantly executed land grab, led by well-connected developers, whereby they get to build a new town, and put themselves in prime position to add lands to Innisfil’s already oversized employment area and also get a new interchange at Hwy 400 and Innisfil 6th line – all in exchange for building a GO station at some unspecified time.
The Orbit project is being pitched to the people of Simcoe and Ontario as a high-density, environmentally friendly, transit-oriented community. But, having some experience with Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs) I was wary of these claims. The Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition labelled the Orbit as greenwashed sprawl in a March 2021 report, “Lake Simcoe Under Pressure”, because it opens up agricultural land for new and expensive development.
The final and unappealable MZO was issued on August 6th, 2021. Now, as municipal planning for growth up to 2051 is underway across the GTHA, Innisfil Council and residents are trying to figure out how an MZO that authorizes new houses for up to 150,000 “over a lifetime” fits with the other growth plan requirements, which would double the size of the Town.
The use of an MZO for a project of this scale offends planners and urban sustainability experts. It also offends residents who made comments about it to the Town of Innisfil. Sixty of the sixty-one comments posted on the Town’s “Get Involved” website are against the Orbit or the use of an MZO.  But it seems the Town and the Minister care little about what citizens think. When the Minister of Municipal Affairs uses an MZO there is no requirement for public consultation or public support. So it’s a perfect fit for an unpopular project.
MIXING GOVERNMENT WITH PRIVATE BUSINESS
But that’s not all. The developer gets to have a Town employee, Chief Planner Tim Cane, (whose title is now Orbit Director for the Town of Innisfil) act like his sales guy, who pitches the development while the Town advocates for a new 400 interchange at the 6th line  and the rezoning of farmland for more unjustified employment lands all along the 400, all of which could benefit the Orbit developer. All of this became apparent in the Oct 14, 2020, Innisfil Council meeting: 
Counc. Bill VanBerkel: “What is missing from the staff report is a description of need from a financial point of view, and how this MZO is connected to and serves other infrastructure plans such as the 400 / 6th line interchange and Innservices.”
Answer from CAO Jason Reynar: (paraphrase) Developer is front-ending costs of infrastructure to finance the Orbit’s needs and to service future development including getting to the (proposed) 400 / 6th line interchange which the Town is lobbying at AMO and the province to have approved.
Handy, right!? What a team! That may be because Innisfil is broke and can’t build the station it has been promising people is coming for the past 10-15 years. Innisfil, and I am afraid other small towns with big ambitions and low coffers, come hat in hand to a developer and they work something out that is mutually beneficial. This offends me because I am clear that business is not government. Only governments are responsible for delivering public services and environmental protection. The core business of business is to make money. Period. I am very uncomfortable with the blurred line, and even more uncomfortable with members of the public embracing this approach.
USING MZOs IS AN ABUSE OF POWER
Further, this MZO (like most) is a massive abuse of power led by the province who by all appearances have decided that “the people” they are working for are mostly developers. While claiming that water will be protected in the 2018 Made in Ontario Environment Plan, with commitments to: “Build on previous successes and continue to implement the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan to protect and restore important natural areas and features of the lake…” , the province has changed a dizzying number of rules to let MZOs like the Orbit happen outside of a typical planning process:
- We know the Ontario government loves issuing MZO’s, having now issued at least 60 of them.They have been mapped here. MZOs have been widely criticized for not following planning laws, not being appealable, and lacking the transparency we have come to expect in our democracy.
- The province gutted the Conservation Authorities Act and can now order a Conservation Authority to issue a permit for the destruction of a natural feature that the province used to protect. (With laws and all that pesky paperwork.) Before the MZO for the Orbit was even issued, we noticed a regulation requiring the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority to do just this. But the details are still missing almost five months later, and no decision has been made on the regulation, so we don’t even know what flood-prone or natural areas in this “green” development are slated for destruction. 
- The Province allowed private money to be used to build GO stations, while guaranteeing “air rights” over the stations and extra density to say ‘thanks for building what taxpayers have always paid for.’ I am not aware that there were problems with the public sector building GO stations so it just looks like another way to have private business make more money at the expense of transparency.
- Until recently, the province has been getting away with these legislative changes. The Ontario Divisional Court ruled in September 2021 that the government of Ontario broke the law by using “COVID recovery” rationale to fast track the passage of a bill (197) with significant environmental ramifications, while not posting the proposed changes on the Environmental Registry of Ontario. 
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH A PROMISED GO STATION?
But it’s not just about policy. The locations of GO stations matter to residents and home buyers. Many homes have been sold based on the promise of a GO station located near new subdivisions in Lefroy.  As recently as 2011, Innisfil’s Official Plan said the GO station would be built at the 5th line, Belle Aire Beach Rd at the north end of Lefroy.   But something changed. The developer advocated for the 6th line, which is in neither Alcona nor Lefroy, and lo and behold it’s on the 6th line. This change occurred under the former Innisfil Mayor Gord Wauchope. I tried to find information about the decisions that led to the selection of the 6th line location, which we understand were considered in an Environmental Assessment by Metrolinx, and by the province in an appeal of the draft secondary plan for the area where the Orbit would be situated today.
In any case, that is where the station will be and the reason Innisfil NEEDED to use an MZO was to expedite the building of the station, to guarantee that it would be built in 2022. Only… there may not be anything compelling the developer to build the station that fast. There is no timeline in the MZO. There is no mention of a GO station either. On October 14th, 2020, a week after the idea of the MZO was brought to Council, this conversation happened at the Council meeting: 
Counc. Orsatti: Does the developer have to build the GO station by a certain time? If not, what is the point of an MZO?
Answer from Chief Planner Tim Cane: We have always been talking with our partners about 2022 for the GO.
I gather this is not the robust response some Councillors had hoped for.
WILL ORBIT REALLY HAPPEN?
The Orbit story in fact goes way back, before the use of MZOs was widespread. The impact today is that people expecting a GO station still don’t have one, and there is no public commitment to a timeline for its construction. What Innisfil also has is an absurd amount of growth allowed in a built form that doesn’t fit with the look and feel of the Town. But because it came in using an MZO, the Town does not have control over the project and will have a huge challenge making this project fit with other Town aspirations and commitments to sustainability.
The Orbit is such a crazy plan that I don’t think will work. Is there a market for condos in a farm field on a train line? Hm. And if this doesn’t work, what’s plan B? You can bet that the developer has one.
- Identified as “Future Recommended County Road” in the Simcoe County Transportation Master Plan, Public Consultation Phase 1, March 2021. Pg 15. And https://innisfil.ca/6th-line-interchange-ea/
- Youtube Innisfil Council meeting, Oct 14, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCkx_rsynyQ&t=7569s
- Made in Ontario Environment Plan, https://www.ontario.ca/page/made-in-ontario-environment-plan p. 13
- Regulation – Time to Grant Permission and Enter into a Compensation Agreement on Lands Subject to Zoning Order O.Reg. 568/21 https://ero.ontario.ca/notice/019-4097
- Innisfil Official Plan, 2011 says: “8.3.1 The preferred GO Rail Station location is delineated on Schedule C at the Belle Aire Beach Road. It was selected by GO Rail in their Environmental Assessment study.” https://innisfil.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Innisfil_OP_April_8_2011_Text.pdf
- Youtube Innisfil Council meeting, Oct 14, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCkx_rsynyQ&t=7569s