What Lake Simcoe Needs Now: Grow the Greenbelt Into Simcoe County

Part 6 of our series Who Will Save Lake Simcoe? Read the full report here.

58% of the Lake Simcoe watershed’s land is protected by the Greenbelt and its policies, and for this we are grateful. However, Lake Simcoe’s western shorelines in Simcoe County are not in the Greenbelt, nor is the rest of the County. This has contributed to leapfrog development over the Greenbelt and Oak Ridges Moraine and into Simcoe County, particularly in Barrie, Bradford West Gwillimbury, Innisfil, and New Tecumseth.

For example, sprawl removed 37,000 acres of natural and semi-natural space in Barrie between 1971 and 2011. [32] Between 2006 and 2012, Simcoe County zoned over 32,000 acres of farmland and natural space to sprawl. [33] Without protective policies like the Greenbelt to keep farmland in production and greenspace preserved, our natural spaces will be under constant threat to urbanization. Case in point, during Simcoe County’s Municipal Comprehensive Review consultation, the County received 79 developer requests to sprawl outside existing boundaries for a potential loss of almost 16,000 acres. [34]

Moreover, Simcoe County is highly reliant on groundwater for both private and municipal wells. This abundance of water is made possible by our recharge areas, wetlands and aquifers that pepper the region. Unfortunately, these places are also prime areas for new development, aggregate activity, and infrastructure such as highways. In 2006, the Intergovernmental Action Report for Simcoe County saw the threat that rampant urbanization was going to have on Simcoe’s water supply stating, “A number of the municipalities in the study area rely on inland water systems which have been demonstrated to be under strain (for example, the Lake Simcoe watershed has known issues as a result of Phosphorus loadings). Without intervening action, these watersheds’ available potable water and aquaculture are threatened.” [35]

Despite 15 years of requests to add Simcoe County to the Greenbelt, this has not happened. Meanwhile, we lose and destroy land that purifies and stores our drinking water and prevents flooding.

Public support for the Greenbelt translated into a provincial promise to protect it, which the province has upheld so far. But it’s tenuous. There have been motions from the York Region Councils of Markham [36] and Vaughan [37] to either downgrade protections of Greenbelt land next to existing communities or to develop in the Greenbelt.

The province has put the 830-acre North Gwillimbury Forest into the hands of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, in the Greenbelt within the lake-side municipality of Georgina. [38] This is a welcome move, but it did not add any land to Southern Ontario’s protected areas. The forest was protected through a legal battle fought by resident and activist Jack Gibbons, who created the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance, and fundraised more than $500,000 to fight the Town of Georgina, the Region of York and the LSRCA until it was ultimately protected. The credit goes to Jack, generous donors, and the citizens who insisted that a Provincially Significant Wetland should be protected.

Finally, the province had some great ideas for Greenbelt expansion, which would have protected the Paris-Galt Moraine, a vulnerable aquifer in the Waterloo area, among other things. Unfortunately, the only idea they acted on was to extend the Greenbelt into already protected urban river valleys. Critics said in a media statement: “Proposed Provincial Greenbelt “expansion” does nothing for farmland and natural areas that need protection while new highways threaten the existing Greenbelt.” [39] It could be described as more of a re-branding of protected greenspace than meaningful policy change.


[32] Barrie Advance. Thursday, April 7, 2016. Barrie has grown 540%, study finds. https://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/6453587-barrie-has-grown-560-in-40-years-study-finds/

[33] Neptis. Implementing the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. October 2013. https://neptis.org/publications/implementing-growth-plan-greater-golden-horseshoe

[34] County of Simcoe staff report to Committee of the Whole. August 10, 2021. Report: CCW – 2021-265

[35] Intergovernmental Action Report for Simcoe County. (2006) Existing Capacities Assessment: Communities Report. https://www.simcoe.ca/dpt/pln/initiatives

[36] York Region staff memo: Considerations of motions, October 13, 2021. https://yorkpublishing.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=27156

[37] Zarzour, Kim. Toronto Star. October 15,l 2021. ‘Slippery slope’: Farmers, environmentalists decry move to open Greenbelt lands in Markham, Vaughan. (For clarity, neither municipality is in the Lake Simcoe watershed) https://www.thestar.com/local-newmarket/news/council/2021/10/15/slippery-slope-farmers-environmentalists-decry-move-to-open-greenbelt-lands-in-markham-vaughan.html

[38] Kelly, Deborah. Barrie Today. June 16, 2021. Province creates new 830-acre nature reserve in Georgina. https://www.barrietoday.com/local-news/province-creates-new-830-acre-nature-reserve-in-georgina-3879316

[39] Ontario Greenbelt Alliance Steering Committee press release. March 24, 2022. Proposed Provincial Greenbelt “expansion” does nothing for farmland and natural areas that need protection while new highways threaten the existing Greenbelt. https://www.greenbeltalliance.ca/resources/media-statement-in-response-to-proposed-provincial-greenbelt-expansion-announcement?fbclid=IwAR1e-IG8lH2LoxYe6BPxAsMoxD8cORrWLQBN4tKIbuUbDq8kawbC_HpZjQo

Threats to Lake Simcoe: Development planned for the Lake Simcoe area is unsustainable.

Part 1 of our series Who Will Save Lake Simcoe? Read the full report here.

Housing and development growth is at the top of the list because everything else flows from this.

In the year since our initial report, we are not aware of any public assessment regarding the sustainability of the planned development, and its sewage and stormwater requirements, in the Lake Simcoe watershed. This growth is anticipated to negatively affect both water quality and housing affordability.

How does growth affect Lake Simcoe?

One of Lake Simcoe’s biggest environmental issues is Phosphorus pollution. We are currently doubling the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan’s target maximum load of 44 tonnes per year.

Phosphorus is in fertilizer, poop, and dirt! Where does it come from? See green graphic.

The impacts of development are not limited to sewage. Any water that drains across the watershed’s land picks up Phosphorus and other pollutants. Untreated, it becomes part of the stormwater pollution that accounts for a stunning 31% of the estimated Phosphorus loads to Lake Simcoe, the highest contributing source.

The stripping of land and development processes themselves contribute to Lake Simcoe’s pollution. Readers should note that advanced sewage treatment will not address all of the impacts of development.

The Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) says the watershed is now home to 465,000 people, and, “based on the Province of Ontario’s Places to Grow Plan and municipal official plans, it’s projected that the urban area within our watershed will increase by approximately 50% by the year 2041 and the population will nearly double.” [1]

Extrapolating from government estimates for development planned from 2008 to 2031, [2] the development projected for the Lake Simcoe watershed will increase Phosphorus loads by at least 15 tonnes per year.

It is an exercise in futility to fight the population growth across the province, but we should be careful about where it will go, what form it will take, and how much land will be disturbed in the process. As explained above, sprawling development will eat up more farmland and contribute more Phosphorus to the lake. So we must consider the denser alternatives to new subdivisions of single-family homes in farm fields.

The way the Municipal Comprehensive Reviews (part of the Official Plan review process) are rolling out, it appears that the initial allocation of land for new development will occur before climate change and water/wastewater capacity analyses are complete, thereby repeating the mistakes that put us in a situation of having development approvals without sewage treatment plant approvals. More on this in the Upper York Sewage Solution section.

But it gets worse. The province has called for an even higher population for the watershed while weakening the Environmental Assessment process for building new highways and sewage treatment plants. Conservation Authorities’ and municipalities’ ability to spend time getting excellent, environmentally-friendly development proposals has been curtailed. The province has also limited the time allowed for proposal review. [3] Municipalities that exceed the shorter review period will face new financial penalties, and the independence of Conservation Authorities’ decisions on some land use matters has been

undermined with new laws allowing ministers to override Conservation Authority requirements. That is a non-exhaustive list of how Ontario laws have changed since 2018 to limit environmental protections and facilitate development.

Sprawl is also bad for residents’ and municipalities’ finances. An exacerbating factor for both environmental and housing affordability concerns is the province’s entrenchment in “market-based” analysis to determine the correct mix of housing in the future. This approach uses old market preferences favouring single-family home development over more compact and affordable housing options. In today’s housing market, this is a missed opportunity to build what mid- and lower-income Ontarians can afford. Research from York Region shows that it is increasingly difficult to buy a home for the average York Region resident. [4] Smaller, more affordable, and family-friendly units are urgently needed.

Chart 1. York Region Affordable Housing Threshold and Average Cost of New Homes (2019) [4]

Sprawling neighbourhoods rely on sprawling infrastructure for water, wastewater, and hydro. Ottawa analyzed the impacts of sprawl vs. infill development scenarios. Their consultant, Hemson, “found it now costs the City of Ottawa $465 per person each year to serve new low-density homes built on undeveloped land, over and above what it receives from property taxes and water bills….On the other hand, high-density infill development, such as apartment buildings, pays for itself and leaves the city with an extra $606 per capita each year.” [5] This leaves sprawling municipalities with fewer dollars to spend on services that make people’s lives better as they try to cover the long-term maintenance costs of sprawling infrastructure that are not covered by development charges.

Although there is absolutely a way forward that would create complete communities, increase affordability, and reduce environmental impacts of new development, the government is passing on the options that would build “the missing middle,” typified by 3 – 6 story, small buildings of condos, apartments and/or townhouses. This is the way we used to build our communities before we succumbed to the sprawl experiment. In Bill 109, the More Homes for Everyone Act [6] which received Royal Assent on April 14th, 2022, the province did not take important steps recommended by experts, academics, and housing advocates to allow more gentle density to existing neighbourhoods. [7]

Strangely, the province is pushing sprawl and massive density at the same time. The province is forcing massively dense tower projects such as those at Yonge St. and Hwy 407 in Richmond Hill, using Enhanced Minister’s Zoning Orders to permit what would be the highest density development in the western hemisphere. [8]

When it comes to the long-term protection of farmland, water quality, and housing affordability, there is a lot to criticize in the province’s frequent changes to the Planning Act. Development lobby groups love it. [9] So far, it’s hard to tell who else does.


[1] Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, 2021. Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, Approved Budget, 2021. p. 5.

[2] Re development to 2031: “Under the Plan all new developments are required to have enhanced stormwater management controls in place, subject to limited exceptions. Accounting for these controls, analysis indicates the Phosphorus load from these new developments would be 15.3 T/yr. Additional analysis indicates that combining “Enhanced” stormwater management controls with LID practices would reduce the Phosphorus load from new development to 9.2 T/yr. While the Strategy and the Plan strongly encourage that effective measures are taken to mitigate and reduce Phosphorus contributions from new development wherever possible, significant Phosphorus loadings from development will occur and should be offset in some way.” (Lake Simcoe Phosphorus Reduction Strategy, p. 30)

[3] This change was made on April 14, 2022, in the More Homes for Everyone Act.

[4] York Region Staff Report: Regional Official Plan Update: Housing Challenges and Opportunities. January 14, 2021. https://yorkpublishing.escribemeetings.com/filestream.ashx?DocumentId=18865

[5] Porter, Kate. Sept 9, 2021. Suburban expansion costs increase to $465 per person per year in Ottawa. CBC news.

[6] Proposed Planning Act changes (the proposed More Homes for Everyone Act, 2022) https://www.ontariocanada.com/registry/view.do?postingId=41487&language=en

[7] Xing, Lisa. March 31, 2022. Ford government left key strategies out of housing legislation, critics say. CBC news. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/housing-crisis-doug-ford-municipalities-1.6403221?fbclid=IwAR0SktZPpUpfXlwj5paX_XXXhZhU9kGr-jLLmqYPejJ0FwKXRV_BUJDovCs

[8] MZOs issued April 14, 2021, for massive density in York Region: https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/r22345 & https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/r22344

[9] BILD influencing policy development, politics and voters: https://bildgta.ca/voteforhousing