Executive summary

Simcoe County is experiencing unprecedented population and development growth. In the last two years, several large-scale, comprehensively planned developments have been proposed for the southern part of the county.

A proposal to build a town of 50,000 south of Alliston was refused by the Town of New Tecumseth's Council in January 2004. In Bradford West Gwillimbury, an earlier proposal to build a town of 50,000 that has been revised to accommodate 114,000 people is now under consideration. These developments, which amount to the establishment of new towns, would attract a larger-than-projected share of regional population growth to Simcoe County.

Factors driving development north of the Oak Ridges Moraine.

(1) Population and employment growth. Many out-migrants from the GTA, including a large number of "empty-nesters," settle in Simcoe County every year. The county has also posted strong employment growth, especially in the automotive sector. South Simcoe County is close to population and employment centres in the GTA and is therefore seen as a site for exurban development.

(2) Proposed highway expansions. South Simcoe County is within the commuting distance of the GTA. The Province has plans to extend Highways 404 and 427, expand Highway 400, and connect Highway 400 to Highway 404 with the Bradford Bypass. Although these proposals have not been finalized, they are encouraging development in the area.

(3) The perception of limited land supply south of the Oak Ridges Moraine. Developers argue that there is little developable land left south of the Oak Ridges Moraine and that what is available is constrained by environmental protection measures. The argument that the GTA is "full" assumes that no new land will be designated for urban development south of the Moraine. Research has shown, however, that there is more than enough land south of the Moraine to accommodate future development to 2031 and beyond. If the land were developed at even marginally higher densities, the supply of land would last longer.

(4) Lower cost of land acquisition. The low cost of acquiring or optioning rural land in Simcoe relative to areas within the GTA has attracted developers.

Reasons why developers are proposing such largescale developments on greenfield sites.

(1) The cost of front-ending servicing infrastructure pushes developers to build bigger. Since municipalities are reluctant to go into debt to provide infrastructure such as water and wastewater services, developers pay up front for new services and infrastructure. They are proposing large-scale developments on greenfield sites in Simcoe County in order to cover the cost of front-ending infrastructure.

(2) This type of development has been accepted elsewhere. The approval by the Ontario Municipal Board of a similar large-scale development in Queensville, York Region, has sent the message to developers that such large-scale proposals can be justified and accepted.

(3) Developers claim that large-scale development is more efficient than incremental development and that infrastructure and community facilities can be laid out more effectively in areas that are comprehensively planned from the start.

What these proposals mean for Simcoe County and the province as a whole.

(1) They hijack debate about how Simcoe might grow. The attention of public officials, planners, and citizens has been focused on responding to development applications rather than on the big picture -- how the county and the Toronto region can or should grow. The need to respond to particular features of particular proposals pre-empts debate on alternative urban forms for the region as a whole.

(2) They highlight the weak capacity of local administration. While developers have marshalled more and more sophisticated arguments to justify their strategies, many local planning departments lack the capacity to respond to them. Fragmentation of authority militates against the development of effective county-wide infrastructure and growth management strategies.

(3) They demonstrate the need for an integrated growth and infrastructure strategy in South Simcoe. No public body has set out a detailed and enforceable plan for how Simcoe County is to grow in the context of the Toronto-related region. The Province is the only body that covers the region, yet planning authority has been delegated to the local level. The Province has the power to make choices at a regional scale, but its role in the system is reactive rather than proactive.

(4) They indicate that the public sector is not in the driver's seat. Weighed down by downloaded responsibilities, municipalities have not behaved entrepreneurially with respect to the financing of the capital investment required for expansion. Moreover, cross-boundary problems such as investment in water and wastewater treatment and regional transit need attention that the Province has not been inclined to provide and that other jurisdictions, such as Simcoe County, are not empowered to undertake.

(5) They show how the private sector is taking on roles traditionally held by the public sector. Developers make their decisions at the regional scale in a way that public bodies do not. The result has been a shift of public functions to the private sector. In the absence of a region-scaled growth strategy for how the Toronto-related region should grow, developers have established the dominant development pattern by continuing to exploit market opportunities and build according to industry norms.

(6) They indicate that "auto pilot planning" is no substitute for political decision-making. The situation in Simcoe County illustrates that planning regulations cannot in themselves manage a rapidly growing region. The challenge in Simcoe is fundamentally political, and political challenges require political solutions. The pattern of development in Simcoe and across the Toronto region will be the product of the ability of governments -- local and provincial -- to make decisions and to establish an effective regulatory environment to achieve them.

Simcoe County is an important test case for the region and the province as a whole. If the smart growth policies promoted by the Province fail to be implemented here, it will signal that the existing planning regime is unable to meet the challenges posed by rapid growth.

Map E1: Summary Map