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Despite protesters, Niagara MPP lauds aims of Bill 23

With dozens demonstrating outside, Sam Oosterhoff was inside the Fonthill Legion assuring people that history will prove the Ford government's Greenbelt policy correct

Niagara West MPP Sam Oosterhoff’s New Year’s Levee at the Fonthill Legion yesterday was picketed by dozens of protesters opposed to the Ford government’s plans to allow residential development in parts of the Greenbelt in Ontario.

Liz Benneian, chair of a citizens’ group called Biodiversity and Climate Action Niagara (BCAC), led the protest. BCAC is a collective of 22 nature clubs, environmental groups, and individual members from across Niagara. The collective opposes the Ford government’s Greenbelt land removals, forced municipal boundary expansions, “strong mayors” legislation, and other recently introduced legislation that they view as contrary to sound planning, effective environmental policy, and good governance.

BCAC statements online point to recent polls indicating broad public opposition to Greenbelt land removals. In addition, the group referenced the government’s own report on submissions to the Environmental Registry, which indicated strong support for continued Greenbelt protections, and broad opposition to any removals or redesignation of lands under the Greenbelt.

BCAC maintains that the Ford government’s policies threaten food security, action on climate change, heritage protection, and safe drinking water sources, among many other detrimental impacts.

“More affordable housing is definitely needed,” said Benneian. “Unfortunately, developing on Greenbelt land and conservation lands will not provide it. Many municipalities have plans for accommodating future growth within municipal boundaries. What’s needed is smart urban planning and for the provincial and federal levels of government to get back into the business of building truly affordable housing.”

Inside the Legion, Oosterhoff appeared unfazed by the placard-carrying protesters along Highway 20. He was accompanied by his older brother Aaron, whose resemblance to the MPP was unmistakable.

“I wholeheartedly support citizens exercising their democratic right to freedom of expression,” said Oosterhoff. “But I think there are some misunderstandings and misconceptions about the bill in question. The NDP and their friends outside [on the picket line] are opposed to building the homes that are needed to solve the housing crisis. When I talk to young Ontarians, and new Canadians, it’s clear that they want to be able to achieve the dream of home ownership. They tell me that the status quo isn't working. Bold action is needed. We have about half a million immigrants coming to our country every single year, and the reality is that 300,000 of them settle in Ontario. When you're not building enough houses for 300,000 people a year, then you end up with the housing crisis.”

Oosterhoff said that there are 2,000,000 acres in the Greenbelt, with 7000 acres being redesignated under Bill 23, but that some 9400 acres are being added to the protected area, meaning that there is actually an overall expansion of the Greenbelt as a whole.

“There are 88 acres in Niagara that are being redesignated to allow for building, all in areas that are abutting urban boundaries,” he said. “The site in Grimsby is actually surrounded by urban areas on three sides. We’re talking less than 100 acres out of two million. There are trade-offs in every public policy. It would be lovely if we could have everything in perfectly equal measure. But at the end of the day, we need to ensure that people have a place to live,” said Oosterhoff.

Addressing the issue of home affordability, Oosterhoff was quick to point out that Pelham lands are not directly impacted by the Greenbelt policy changes.

“I would say that it's about creating a better mix of housing,” he said. “You can't have just McMansions, and you can't have just huge condo towers. We need to have houses of every kind. The people who move into more expensive houses are not bidding on other houses that are more affordable. The aim is to create more supply across the market segments.”

Oosterhoff conceded that “there is a lot more work that needs to be done towards addressing the generational housing challenge. I’m willing to listen to the ideas that people bring forward.

Bill 23 has over 40 actions in it, and some of those actions aren't just on the supply side, there also on the demand side. For example, something that we're exploring is a vacant home tax to stop speculation. We’re going to bring in a tax to stop people who buy homes and keep them empty. We’ve also increased the foreign resident buyers tax.”

Back on the picket line, Mike Jones, of Pelham Advocates for Trees and Habitat (PATH), maintained that the protest had good value, drawing public attention to the government’s intentions.

“Ford is making activists out of us,” he said, adding that the protest was “not just for us, but for future generations. We just have to keep up the hard work. I'm definitely going to go in [to the levee]. I’ll wish Sam a happy new year, and tell him bluntly how I feel about Bill 23.”

Jones said he has arranged a meeting with Oosterhoff for next week. Based on the MPP’s comments at the levee, Jones shouldn’t bet the farm that he’ll be able to change the legislator’s mind.

“I’m pretty passionate about Bill 23,” said Oosterhoff. “I think [the Ford government] are going to be on the right side of history on this one.”

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Don Rickers

About the Author: Don Rickers

A life-long Niagara resident, Don Rickers worked for 35 years in university and private school education. He segued into journalism in his retirement with the Voice of Pelham, and now PelhamToday
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