Imagine 5 years from now you are driving from Toronto to the west end, where you notice the plethora of large buildings and condominiums, which each year increase in number and height. The great height of the downtown core has spilled over and expanded in all directions. In central Mississauga, landscape formerly dominated by just a few buildings is now littered with gigantic structures. Now this trend continues to make its way outside of the GTA, including to revitalized downtown cores in Guelph, Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge with growing downtown populations.

The current population of the Golden Horseshoe is 7.8 million. By 2031, the population is projected to increase by an additional 3.7 million people, bringing the total to 11.5 million.

The Province responded to the increase of population with a policy of intensification, whereby cities will be built-up in concentrated areas. This policy will allow the Province and other branches of government and institutions to manage growth by focusing resources, infrastructure and density, into those centralized built-up areas.

In 2005, the Government of Ontario enacted the Places to Grow Act (Ontario) (the “Act”), in recognition of a need for strong planning in the face of significant long term growth of Ontario’s population.  The Act recognized that growth plans would need to adapt to different geographic areas and situations. Municipalities were to develop their own phasing strategies to achieve their respective needs.

The preamble of the Act succinctly states the Government’s intention:

“The Government of Ontario recognizes that in order to accommodate future population growth, support economic prosperity and achieve a high quality of life for all Ontarians, planning must occur in a rational and strategic way.

The Government of Ontario recognizes that building complete and strong communities, making efficient use of existing infrastructure and preserving natural and agricultural resources will contribute to maximizing the benefits, and minimizing the costs, of growth.

The Government of Ontario recognizes that an integrated and co-ordinated approach to making decisions about growth across all levels of government will contribute to maximizing the value of public investments.”1

The first such growth plan to obtain provincial approval was the Greater Golden Horseshoe (“GGH”) Growth Plan. The GGH Growth Plan was approved by the Province on June 16, 2006, and extends to boundaries west to Waterloo Region, north to Barrie, and northeast to Peterborough and includes Brant, Haldimand and Northunberland Counties. The GGH Growth Plan pointed to numerous challenges in sustaining the growing economy, including employment lands being converted from their intended uses, thereby limiting future economic opportunities and the significant resources required to develop more intensive infrastructure.

Section 12 of the Act requires that a municipality or a municipality’s planning authorities amend its official plan to conform to the growth plan. Municipalities in the GGH are required to conform with the GGH Growth Plan. These changes must be amended within three years of when the growth plan came into effect.

The three year period has just recently passed. Numerous municipalities have enacted changes to their official plans in order to conform with the Act. Many of these official plans now are under appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (“OMB”).

As an example, one of the first municipalities to have their new official plan move forward to this stage is the Regional Municipality of Waterloo’s, Regional Official Plan (“ROP”) that was adopted on June 16, 2009, which was later approved with modifications by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing on December 22, 2010.

On January 4, 2011, the Ministry of Affairs and Housing issued a Notice of Decision related to the ROP in accordance with the provisions of the Planning Act (Ontario). In the twenty day appeal period that followed, 26 appeals were filed to the OMB. Appeals relate to a diverse set of issues, including challenges to the rural/urban boundary, the land budget allocating where the growing populations will live and work, as well as, appeals relating to more discrete issues such as how the natural heritage policy is implemented. Similar appeals will address these issues in other communities.

Developers, planning and legal analysts will continue to watch with interest in the next year as these appeals from across the GGH progress through the OMB. The fundamental question resulting from these appeals is: are these policies appropriate to implement the directions set out in the Act?

The OMB has an important job ahead of it, with an appeal process that will likely be quite lengthy and complex. The development community should watch the outcomes of these Growth Plan related appeals with considerable interest as the policies approved by the OMB will shape the future design and urban structure across southern Ontario for the next 20 years.