Depending on your point of view, it’s either a glimpse into the future of development in southern Ontario, or a dangerous waste of good farmland.
Either way, the proposed Orbit development planned for Innisfill, a town of 37,000 just southeast of Barrie, is making residents take notice.
“It’s going to be a world-class, cutting edge community,” Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin said. “We know growth is coming … We have to say to ourselves, ‘Do we want growth to happen to us, or do we want to take the reins?'”
The centrepiece of the Orbit will be a new GO station to serve the 83 per cent of residents who commute to work in Toronto, either by car or from the Barrie GO station.
Arranged in concentric circles around the station would be commercial and residential properties, with the highest densities — including condo towers — at the centre. © John Badcock CBC/Town of Innisfil The proposed site of the Orbit now, beside an artist’s rendering of the project.
The new community is designed to help the town cope with an expected doubling of its population in the next decade or so, according to Innisfil town planner Tim Cane. He said the entire community will include 7,000 homes and cover about 56 hectares, within two kilometres of Lake Simcoe.
And that proximity to the lake has some locals like Donnie Crowder concerned.
As the owner of Gail’s Hot Box Huts, an ice fishing operation on Lake Simcoe, Crowder worries about what the runoff from the development’s concrete and steel surfaces could do to the health of the lake.
“I have great concerns for the future of the lake. Our population is increasing at a great rate. The fishery is going to change, one hundred percent; the lake is going to change,” Crowder said. “It’s not going to be the same lake moving forward.
“We need to protect the lake, and the lake will help take care of us, too.”
Crowder says he understands a town that’s within commuting distance of Toronto has to grow. But he believes that growth should be carefully managed. And he’s especially concerned about the method the town wants to use to fast- track the development.
It’s a called a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO), which allows a developer to sidestep local planning watchdogs, like conservation authorities. It’s the same kind of order that triggered so much controversy in Pickering, where developers were recently poised to destroy a local wetland.
“We’re just hoping that, if the Orbit does come into existence, that the wastewater and the storm water runoff is handled accordingly and that everybody — all the developers and everybody involved — protects Lake Simcoe first, because that is the draw to the area,” Crowder said.
“If the lake wasn’t here, those houses wouldn’t be here, either.”
A group called the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition shares those concerns.
Executive director Claire Malcolmson and member Steven Kirschenblatt both told CBC Toronto the development would make more sense in another, less environmentally-sensitive area.
“The Orbit would add 150,000 people to rural Innisfil on shores of Lake Simcoe via a Minister’s Zoning Order,” the group says in a news release.
“[It would] bring a new GO station to the middle of farm fields. The community wants transit, but they don’t want it attached to sprawl accelerated by a MZO.”
‘Green-washed sprawl project’
Malcolmson fears the development could lead to a dramatic increase in the amount of environmentally damaging phosphorous that makes its way into the lake, in violation of the province’s own Lake Simcoe Protection Plan of 2008.
“There’s no information about how water and wastewater will be managed,” she said. “I think this is a green-washed sprawl project.”
But Cane, the Innisfil planner, says sprawl is exactly what the Orbit is designed to avoid.
“You [can] build smarter around infrastructure, transit infrastructure in particular, and start building up instead of out,” he said.
“And that’s what Orbit is all about. It’s about capturing that growth that’s going to come in anyway and putting it into it to a more responsible form.”
Town takes environment seriously, planner says
Cane, who believes there will be shovels in the ground by next spring, said Orbit’s planning reflects how seriously the town takes its responsibility to the health of the lake.
“Ironically, the genesis of Orbit is to grow more responsibly, so that we are, in fact, reducing our impact on the environment, and by result on the lake as well,” he said.
“We think that Orbit’s footprint is going to be much less than what traditional development would be.”
Innisfil town council voted to apply for the MZO late last year, and a town spokesperson said he believes that application has been sent to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing for approval.
But Stephanie Bellotto, a spokesperson for Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, told CBC Toronto the province has not yet formally received an MZO request from the town.
“As with all municipal requests, we expect that the municipality has completed their due diligence, including consultation with local communities who will be impacted by the MZO, before a request is sent,” she wrote in an email.