A local advocacy group is fighting to defend a stretch of environmentally sensitive wetland and woodland along the southern shore of Lake Simcoe. The North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance (NGFA), named after the threatened area, was formed in 2011 to combat a proposal from Maple Lake Estates to build a 1,073-unit mobile home park in the area.
“If it were to go ahead, it would not only destroy the…provincially significant wetland but it would drive a stake through the heart of the forest and split it in two,” says Jack Gibbons, a cottager on Lake Simcoe and chair of the NGFA.
Maple Lake Estates was given approval to develop the land by Georgina, Ont.’s town council 35 years ago. The developer did not follow through with the development at the time, but held onto the approval. In 2003, however, the provincial government designated Paradise Beach – Island Grove wetland (a section of the North Gwillimbury Forest) a provincially significant wetland due to its impact on Lake Simcoe’s health and its provision of significant habitats to local bird and fish species. Eighty per cent of the land Maple Lake Estates plans to develop falls within this protected area.
The York Region, in which Georgina is located, prohibits development on protected wetlands and woodlands. Gibson says “The Planning Act of Ontario requires a lower tier municipality, like Georgina, to bring its official plan into conformity with the region’s official plan.” This means Georgina is required to update their municipal bylaws to protect the North Gwillimbury Forest’s wetland. The town, however, has not updated their bylaws, and, in 2011, Maple Lake Estates announced that they were moving forward with the development of the mobile home park.
The NGFA appealed the development proposal at the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), formerly the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). “We had our hearing in May 2018 and then in December we got our decision, and we won,” Gibson says. “The LPAT agreed with us. It designated virtually all of the Maple Lake Estates land as an environmentally protected area.”
Last Thursday, the Georgina Town Council acknowledged the LPAT decision, saying they will rewrite the zoning bylaw to prohibit development in the wetland. If Maple Lake Estates appeals the LPAT decision, however, Gibson says Georgina will put off their rezoning changes until the appeal is heard and a decision is made. “If the developer does appeal the LPAT decision, we absolutely do not think it will be successful, but we will certainly participate in the appeal process to oppose it.”
The North Gwillimbury Forest, which is three times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, is an essential part of the Lake Simcoe watershed. If the developers’ appeal is successful and the proposal were to go through, Gibson says it could majorly impact the swimming, boating, and fishing experiences of cottagers on the lake.
The deadline for Maple Lake Estates to appeal the LPAT decision is January 20. “If there’s no appeal, the town’s going to move forward and amend the bylaw and that will prohibit development and save the forest forever,” Gibson says. “We’ve been working at it for eight years and we’re close to victory now.”