OAK RIDGES MORAINE PROTECTION: A BRIEF HISTORY
STORM has influenced environmental planning and protection for the Oak Ridges Moraine since 1989. The idea for a coalition on the Oak Ridges Moraine flowed out of a meeting in October 1989 of community-based groups and individuals concerned about development pressures in different areas of the Oak Ridges Moraine. It quickly became apparent that the stories were describing common local concerns of urban development, aggregate applications, disappearing forests and that this was a larger issue that extended over many watersheds and municipalities. In March 1990, Save the Oak Ridges Moraine Coalition was officially incorporated as a not-for-profit organization.
Recognizing the problems presented by multi-jurisdictional governance (24 area municipalities and eight regional and county upper-tier municipalities) along its 160-kilometre length, STORM's primary goal, from the outset, was to seek provincial legislation for the Oak Ridges Moraine, modelled after the highly successful Niagara Escarpment Planning and Development Act and Plan. Closely related to this goal was the urgent need for ecosystem-based land-use planning that acknowledged the fragility of watersheds and headwaters regions. And since so many rivers, creeks and streams have their source in the moraine, STORM's active concern has extended to the watersheds on both sides of this height of land.
STORM played a key role in raising the profile of the moraine at both the local and provincial levels, resulting in an "expression of provincial interest" in the moraine in 1990 by the provincial government. STORM was appointed as one of 14 members of the provincial Oak Ridges Moraine Technical Working Committee from 1991 to 1994. This three-year planning study produced the first comprehensive long-term strategy for the Moraine in 1994. STORM was also involved in the citizens' advisory committee appointed to coordinate public consultation on the strategy. However, the province never implemented this long-term strategy.
In 1999 the Regions of York, Durham and Peel initiated a joint regional initiative on the Oak Ridges Moraine. The draft report, entitled Towards a Long Term Strategy for the Oak Ridges Moraine, called on the provincial government to show leadership for moraine protection. STORM worked closely throughout 1999-2002 with the Federation of Ontario Naturalists and Earthroots on joint projects to get the attention of the public, the provincial government and the media as well as facilitating the involvement of other key environmental organizations in the general call for action.
On May 17, 2001 the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act was passed. This legislation created a six-month development freeze and charted the path for a consultative process involving, again, a government-appointed multi-stakeholder committee. STORM was a member of the Oak Ridges Moraine Advisory Panel, bringing its 12 years of experience and perspective into the mix. The recommendations of the advisory panel formed the basis of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act (the Act), which was unanimously enacted by the Ontario Legislature on December 14, 2001. Four months later, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (ORM was approved as a regulation under the new legislation.
The Plan focuses on protecting headwater areas, watersheds and groundwater features and functions, as well as forests, wetlands and farmland, and is the jumping-off point for "smart growth" across Ontario.
The Plan divides the Moraine into four land use designations: Natural Core Areas (38% of the Moraine), Natural Linkage Areas (24% of the Moraine), Countryside Areas (30% of the Moraine) and Settlement Areas (8% of the Moraine).
Natural Core Areas protect those lands with the greatest concentrations of key natural heritage features which are critical to maintaining the integrity of the Moraine as a whole. Only existing uses and very restricted new resource management, agricultural, low intensity recreational, home businesses, transportation and utility uses are allowed in these areas.
Natural Linkage Areas protect critical natural and open space linkages between the Natural Core Areas and along rivers and streams. The only uses that are allowed are those allowed in Natural Core Areas, plus some aggregate resource operations.
Countryside Areas provide an agricultural and rural transition and buffer between the Natural Core Areas and Natural Linkage Areas and the urbanized Settlement Areas. Prime agricultural areas as well as natural features are protected.
The general intent of the ORMCP is to identify and protect certain features and their functions and to limit development to land uses that are compatible with, or do not undermine, those features and functions.
The Oak Ridges Moraine Plan area including its core and corridors along with buffers is one of the vital landscapes that forms the backbone of southern Ontario’s natural heritage linking Algonquin to Adirondack, the Land Between, the Grand River Valley, to Long point and Georgian Bay, and as such is vital to contributing to Ontario’s natural heritage goals, water strategies, and emerging climate change mitigation and adaptation policies.
Equally important is the example that the moraine legislation and protection campaign sets for other communities and natural areas in the province threatened by urban sprawl. While the Oak Ridges Moraine and Niagara Escarpment Plans have some similarities, there are a number of key differences. Perhaps the most significant is how the provincial plan is to be implemented. Unlike the Niagara Escarpment Plan, which is overseen by a provincially-funded and administered agency (the Niagara Escarpment Commission), the moraine legislation established municipalities as the primary implementers of the Plan. This model of a provincial plan implemented by municipalities had no precedent in Ontario and as such required careful monitoring to ensure effective implementation and adherence to the intent of the Plan. STORM continues to play a critical role in ensuring proper implementation by municipalities.
Upholding and strengthening the Oak Ridges Moraine Plan and Act to ensure it is preserved for a lifetime is of the utmost importance to the future of Ontario. Continuing and expanding protection is essential to the moraine’s survival and sharing these lessons with other moraines and significant ecological regions in southern Ontario will be critical to ensuring proper environmental planning in Southern Ontario.