In November 2001, about six months after the Ontario government introduced the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act, 2001, which established a six-month moratorium on development on the Moraine, the Province announced its intention to exchange lands on the Oak Ridges Moraine in Richmond Hill and Uxbridge that had been slated for development, for lands in north Pickering known as Seaton.
The Seaton lands had been under public ownership since the 1970s. They had been assembled to provide a site for a new airport and an accompanying planned community to the east of Toronto, but the airport was never built and the lands remained undeveloped. The land had been divided into two areas – the Duffins-Rouge agricultural preserve to the southwest and an area available for urban development to the northeast. Several plans were put forward – the most recent being an ambitious 1995 proposal to accommodate 90,000 residents in a carefully designed community that retained considerable amounts of protected Greenlands – but nothing came of them.
The lands continued to be farmed by tenants who leased the land from the government. A small section was released to allow for urban expansion of the Cornell development in Markham, but the rest were left undeveloped. In the late 1990s, the Ontario government began to sell land back to the resident farmers, with easements on lots larger than 2 ha that required that the lands be kept in agricultural use.
When large amounts of land on the Oak Ridges Moraine were removed from development, the government asked former Toronto mayor David Crombie to broker a deal whereby the developers whose land was affected by the Oak Ridges Moraine Act would be compensated with land elsewhere. Crombie recommended the Seaton lands because they represented a large assembly of provincially owned lands and a review panel was established to ensure that the exchange would be fair to all concerned.
The arrangement brought the City of Pickering, which supported urban development on the lands, into conflict with the Region of Durham, which took the position that the land should not be urbanized. The negotiations took place out of the public eye, so it is not yet known whether and to what extent natural features on the lands will be protected. Although the Minister’s Zoning Order of 2003 has temporarily frozen the lands and maintained the agricultural preserve, the present Liberal government has not opened up the negotiations to public scrutiny, and the future of the Seaton lands remains unknown.
The Seaton lands are unique in the fact that they represent a sizeable parcel of land close to Canada’s largest city that has remained more or less unchanged for 30 years. They contain a mix of farmland, woodland, old fields, streams, and some locally significant wetlands - some of which would be protected on the basis of its ecological importance, while other areas would not normally be fully protected from development. In fact, the lands were always intended for development, but by an accident of history (i.e., the Pickering Airport plan), they were bypassed in the rapid urbanization of the surrounding areas. Like the Trafalgar Moraine, they do not contain any particularly unique environmental features, but by coming to public attention in the land exchange negotiations, this rural area has taken on significance as a symbol of vanishing farmland and the pressures of urban development.
The Seaton land exchange also illustrates the fact that provincial ownership is no guarantee of protection, and that conflicts can arise over Greenlands protection that can pit one level of government against another.