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Environmentalists are claiming a victory against sprawl after Hamilton City Council voted not to designate more farmland for housing over the next 30 years, defying warnings from Queen’s Park that this would further restrict the supply of needed new homes.

It’s an example that activists in some of Toronto’s outer suburbs hope their municipal politicians could be persuaded to follow, even as Ontario’s Municipal Affairs Minister says he could overturn Hamilton’s move.

Local governments are scrambling to update their own official plans in the coming months to conform with the Progressive Conservative government’s changes to its predecessor Liberals’ land-use planning policies for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which curls around Toronto from Niagara to Peterborough.

The government says its aim is to get more much-needed housing built and keep up with rapid growth. But environmentalists say by lowering minimum density requirements, extending municipal plans out to 2051 and relying on inflated population projections, Ontario is forcing communities to earmark too much land for development, and locking in sprawl. It’s a windfall for land speculators in the short term, they say, and a white elephant for municipal budgets in the long term, as spread-out housing results in fewer taxpayers.

Hamilton’s decision last week came after months of campaigning by both environmentalists and developers. City council voted 11-3 against its own planning department’s recommendation, which would have designated 1,310 hectares on the city’s outskirts for development.

Phil Pothen, a lawyer with the group Environmental Defence, says the city’s move is a “transformative template” for other places looking to resist the province and build more compact communities that can be served by public transit.

That’s because Hamilton council not only froze the city’s built-up urban boundary, it told planners to look at how to allow enough housing – an expected 110,300 units – inside the city to still hit the province’s targets, a tall task that calls for a massive rewrite of zoning and planning policies. Hamilton city planners had warned it would be impossible to hit the province’s growth targets without expanding the urban boundary, and that doing so would mean stuffing as much as 80 per cent of Hamilton’s growth inside its built-up area, more than double its current intensification rate.

This would result in more apartments and too few single-family homes, the city’s planners said in their report to council, missing targets set by a consultants’ report done to conform with the province’s new “market-based” land-needs assessment process.

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, who warned in an op-ed in The Hamilton Spectator last month that the move would further drive up home prices, would not rule out overriding the city’s plan.

“In Ontario, we’ve got a housing crisis,” he said. “We don’t have enough supply to meet demand. So we can’t sit back and do nothing.”

Hamilton city Councillor John-Paul Danko said it will be harder politically for the province to block his city’s anti-sprawl plan if others follow suit: “It’s kind of a watershed moment for growth planning in Ontario, whether other municipalities will see this as, well, ‘Hamilton did it, so we can take that bold step as well.’ ”

Halton, Durham and Peel Regions are still debating their own official plans, ahead of a July 1 deadline that Environmental Defence lawyer Mr. Pothen notes is after the June 2 provincial election, when a new government could change direction. Last month, York Regional Council rejected pleas from environmentalists and endorsed a plan that opens up 80 per cent of the region’s remaining agricultural land outside the protected Greenbelt.

Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, the MPP for Hamilton Centre, said she supports Hamilton’s decision to beat back sprawl, and called the minister’s intervention “bullying.”

Economic consultant Frank Clayton, co-founder of Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, warns that Hamilton will fail to produce enough detached single-family homes to meet market demand and that buyers – including those fleeing Toronto house prices for Hamilton – will end up feeding real-estate booms in places farther afield such as Woodstock or Brantford.

“People will go someplace else if they can’t find the housing they want,” Dr. Clayton said.

Critics say sprawl is more than an environmental concern – it also costs more. Earlier this year, Ottawa City Council approved the details of a 1,281-hectare boundary expansion. But city Councillor Shawn Menard said being forced to expand puts cities in a financial straitjacket. Low-density development is simply too expensive to maintain, with more roads and pipes but fewer taxpayers to foot the bill.

He points to an analysis, done by Hemson Consultants, that shows Ottawa spends $465 annually per person to service low-density homes on the periphery. Meanwhile, infill homes in the core contribute $606 more each year, per person, than they cost to service.

“Expanding the urban boundary is extremely expensive,” Mr. Menard said. “It’s not sustainable over time.”

As a result of the imbalance, residents in the core end up subsidizing the suburbs. But the resulting pressure on municipal bottom lines becomes more onerous as cities grow.

“Maybe the development charges in suburban neighbourhoods really need to be re-thought to actually make them represent the true life-cycle cost,” said Toon Dreessen, president of Architects DCA.

Victor Doyle, a retired senior planner with the Ontario government and an architect of its Greenbelt and previous growth plan, said the province’s new “market-based” land-needs assessments has prompted many municipalities to hire consultants who rely on patterns from previous decades for their forecasts.

This overestimates the future demand for new single-family homes, he said, and underestimates the need for what planners call “missing middle” housing, such as townhouses and duplexes or low-rise apartments. Hamilton in particular will need to build more densely along its planned light-rail line, he points out.

“They’re looking forward, and not looking backward to Leave It to Beaver times,” Mr. Doyle said. “People don’t want to live in far-off communities. They’re happy to live in more ‘missing middle’-type housing forms along a transit corridor.”

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