Victories in Freele Tract and Carruthers Creek Headwaters Show Power of Citizen Engagement in Land Use Planning

Although the government of Premier Douglas Ford is no Valhalla for environmental protection, two recent decisions in rejecting municipally supported requests for Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZO) show that engaged citizens can wrest positive victories. One MZO request, by the County of Simcoe, would have put a waste transfer station in the 207-acre part of Simcoe County Forest, designated as the Freele Tract. The second by the Town of Pickering, supported by a developer, supported the urbanization of the headwaters of Carruthers Creek.

The battles to save the Carruthers Creek headwaters and the Freele Tract still go on. Rather than what has been termed the “nuclear option” of an MZO, they will proceed under the normal mechanisms of the Planning Act. These are governed by prescribed public consultations and arbitration by the quasi-judicial Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT).

The victories were not spelled out by any government press release. They emerged on August 20, 2020, when at a public event, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Stephen Clark, was interviewed by the Barrie Examiner. Here Clark revealed, “No projects going through the LPAT process are being considered.”

The battle to save the Freele Tract from an MZO was long and hard-fought. It was launched on September 3, 2019, when Simcoe County made the request to Clark. Over the course of 11 months, Friends of Simcoe County Forests later joined by Sierra Club, mounted opposition to the scheme to put a waste transfer station in the heart of a restored forest. Since its restoration in 1948, Freele has begun to develop ecologically significant old-growth characteristics.

The Freele Tract’s size alone, large for Ontario’s rural landscape makes it a refuge for species that require extensive woodland tracts. These include wood thrush, Eastern wood-pewee, and red-shouldered hawk.

Both Freele Tract and Carruthers Creek headwaters are examples of past environmental victories now under attack. The Freele Tract creation is one of the great achievements of the Simcoe County forests system. It was developed as the first Agreement Forest in 1921, originally to prevent the county from been buried from the marching sands of shifting deserts. As with much of the protected landscape of Ontario, the Carruthers Creek headwaters remain free of urban development to protect downstream areas (in this case Ajax) from flooding.

The attack on the Freele Tract is especially vicious. It is part of a sad legacy of Simcoe County using its otherwise well-managed forests as free land for municipal facilities. This dates back to the 1967 destruction of its County Courthouse where the earth healing forest system was designed after 1921. In one of the successor buildings the Mohawk environmental activist, Danny Beaton was the subject of a bail hearing. This came after a stint in prison where he pledged to “speak up for the water and forests.”

At least this spring, the wetlands of the Freele Tract with the defeat of the MZO, will resonate with one of the most spectacular of Ontario displays of nature -- the annual symphony of spring of the Western chorus frog.

Photo: Simcoe County Forest Baxter Tract from - a great source of info on public lands and trail access all over the world.

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