The Oak Ridges Moraine is an irregularly-shaped ridge formed from glacial sands and gravel that stretches for 160 km across the study area: from the Trent River (County of Northumberland) in the east to the Niagara Escarpment (Region of Peel) in the west. Located north of and parallel to Lake Ontario, the Moraine divides the watersheds draining south into western Lake Ontario from those draining north into Georgian Bay, Lake Simcoe and the Trent River system.
In May 2001, the Province introduced the Oak Ridges Moraine Protection Act, 2001, which established a six-month moratorium on development on the Moraine. A period of extensive study and public and stakeholder consultation ensued, as the government sought input on the development of a long-term strategy to protect the Moraine. In November 2001, the Province released a comprehensive strategy for the Oak Ridges Moraine, which included the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, 2001 and the regulations of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (MMAH 2002).
The ORMCP was established to provide land use and resource management direction for the Moraine. It identifies key natural heritage features (e.g., wetlands, woodlands, fish habitat, and significant wildlife habitat) and hydrologically sensitive features (e.g., kettle lakes and springs). Decisions regarding land use planning that affect the ORM, whether made at the provincial or municipal level, must conform to the specific provisions of the Plan. The ORMCP takes precedence over municipal Official Plans.
The Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan has the following objectives:
(a) protecting the ecological and hydrological integrity of the Oak Ridges Moraine Area;
(b) ensuring that only land and resource uses that maintain, improve or restore the ecological and hydrological functions of the Oak Ridges Moraine Area are permitted;
(c) maintaining, improving or restoring all the elements that contribute to the ecological and hydrological functions of the Oak Ridges Moraine Area, including the quality and quantity of its water and its other resources;
(d) ensuring that the Oak Ridges Moraine Area is maintained as a continuous natural landform and environment for the benefit of present and future generations;
(e) providing for land and resource uses and development that are compatible with the other objectives of the Plan;
(f) providing for continued development within existing urban settlement areas and recognizing existing rural settlements;
(g) providing for a continuous recreational trail through the Oak Ridges Moraine Area that is accessible to all including persons with disabilities; and
(h) providing for other public recreational access to the Oak Ridges Moraine Area.
The Plan classifies the Moraine into four land use designations:
- Natural Core Areas occupy 38% of the Moraine and protect lands with the greatest concentrations of key natural heritage features that are critical to maintaining the integrity of the Moraine as a whole. Only existing uses and very restricted new uses are allowed in these areas.
- Natural Linkage Areas occupy 24% of the Moraine and protect critical natural and open space linkages between the Natural Core Areas. They are also associated with major watercourses. Some limited aggregate resource extraction (sand and gravel pits) is allowed in Natural Linkage Areas, subject to stringent review and approval standards.
- Countryside Areas occupy 30% of the Moraine and are typically agricultural lands that act as a rural transition and buffer between the Natural Core and Natural Linkage Areas and the urbanized Settlement Areas. Recreation developments such as golf courses are permitted in the Countryside Areas. Limited residential development is also allowed in Countryside Areas, contingent on the municipality completing an approved growth management study, a rural economic development study, a water budget and a water conservation plan
- Settlement Areas occupy 8% of the Moraine and are generally those portions of the Oak Ridges Moraine that are already urbanized or approved for future urban development in municipal Official Plans.
The ORMCP is to be reviewed every 10 years to determine whether any policy or mapping revisions should be made. However, the 10-year review cannot consider removing land from either Natural Core Areas or the Natural Linkage Areas.
An oft-heard criticism of the natural heritage policies in the PPS is that the definitions are vague. By comparison, the regulations related to natural heritage protection contained in the ORMCP are highly specific and rigidly applied. One of the fundamental differences between the PPS and the ORMCP is that the former document is an expression of provincial policy, while the latter is a regulation and takes precedence over the policies of an Official Plan.4 It is a requirement of the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act, 2001 that the Official Plans of all the upper- and lower-tier municipalities that contain a portion of the ORM be amended to bring them into conformity with the Plan.