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Rough reception for Bradford Highlands redevelopment pitch

For the better part of two hours, residents and councillors teed off on a development proposal for the former golf course
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Bradford Highlands Golf Course closed at the end of the 2021 season

Bradford Highlands may never be a golf course again, but many in the community told developers they were out of bounds at a special meeting of Bradford West Gwillimbury council May 31.

Council convened for a public planning meeting to discuss a proposed Official Plan Amendment (OPA) for approximately 60 hectares of land encompassing 23 Brownlee Dr. (the former golf course) and properties at 2820 and 2848 Line 5. Dozens of residents and nearly every member of council spoke in opposition to the request, during an almost two-hour period for questions and comments during the meeting.

The owners of the property – ICG Golf Inc., Bayview-Wellington (Highlands) Inc. and 2523951 Ontario Limited – want to expand Bradford’s urban area as outlined in the Official Plan to include the 60 hectares and change its zoning from rural to residential.

This isn’t a new request. A similar application was submitted in 2017 for 23 Brownlee and 2820 Line 5, but the town deemed the application incomplete. Updated submissions were made throughout the spring, including the addition of 2848 Line 5.

If successful, approximately 950 residential units could be built on the properties, alongside associated uses such as park space, stormwater management, and environmentally protected lands. The development would also see a proposed collector road network connecting to Line 5, Line 6, Brownlee Drive and Inverness Way.

The area has already been developed once, suggested Don Given of Malone Given Parsons LTD., the planner retained by the property owners. What used to be farmland was developed into the Scotch Settlement golf course, which underwent several name changes before it was closed at the end of 2021. The OPA being requested would allow for redevelopment of the properties that would be beneficial to the community, Given argued.

“There is insufficient land to accommodate allocated population to 2031 as there are limited opportunities for growth,” Givens’ presentation in support of the OPA stated. “Subject lands can help meet this demand to provide a market-based housing mix, including low-density housing”

Even as the County of Simcoe undertakes its Municipal Comprehensive Review (MCR) looking at growth out to 2051, the forecasts for 2031 have adjusted upward by about 7,500 people, Given said.

“From our perspective, that’s a clear indication of the market interest in coming to Simcoe County that’s spilling over from other parts of the GTA, because you’re a county that has lands that are reasonably priced and houses that are reasonably priced that serve a commuter market,” Given said. “The subject lands we’re talking about are capable of responding to that market fairly quickly.”

But it’s a development that is unwelcome in the community - including by a descendant of a former property owner that farmed the land – and many of those who spoke lamented the loss of green space caused by the potential construction of 950 homes. Several of the 78 people who signed up to speak or submit comments at the May 31 meeting were residents of Brownlee Drive, but the dissent spread out throughout the southern portion of the community.

Dan Sopich resides on Golfview Boulevard, backing onto the former third hole of Bradford Highlands. He wants the area to remain green space but also spoke of the concerns he sees while farming in the Holland Marsh.

“As an active farmer in the marsh, I only see more traffic impeding my ability to farm,” he said. Sopich called the timing of the amendment unnecessary, echoed by many public participants and council members, as the town has enough developable land in its urban boundaries to meet the growth goals outlined in its Official Plan. Ignoring those plans to approve this amendment would set a dangerous precedent, he warned.

“Approving this amendment would certainly embolden other developers to request Official Plan amendments for their properties,” Sopich added. The very next speaker in the public meeting confirmed that hunch.

David White spoke on behalf of Bearsfield Development. Bearsfield’s opposition to the OPA request also came in writing prior to the session and was one of a handful of comments provided to councillors in the agenda package for the meeting.

Bearsfield owns land on the southwest corner of Line 6 and Sideroad 10, which the company wishes to develop, but was not included in the Official Plan as part of the town’s urban area. They didn’t fight that decision through an appeal of the Official Plan, White said, nor had any plans to. Instead, they planned to wait until the MCR was finalized before making any moves and continue working with the municipality.

But if this OPA was approved, councillors would likely be deciding about Bearsfield’s property soon too.

“If the town is going to open the boundary issue… then it’s our position that the town should consider all potential candidate sites, including the Bearsfield lands,” White said. “In light of the Bradford Highlands application, I think Bearsfield has no option but to proceed and complete an application itself.”

Bearsfield may not have to do so, as initial feedback from council was near-unanimous in staunch opposition to the OPA by those who were present, including Coun. Peter Dykie, whose Ward 7 encompasses the former Bradford Highlands.

Coun. Gary Lamb felt approval could harken back to a planning style from decades past and that council should stand its ground and not allow that to happen.

“Do we allow another development to jump the queue and get into the urban area?” he asked. “We know there’ll be a half-dozen more, and then we’ll get back to the old days where they checkerboard farms.”

These thoughts were echoed by Coun. Raj Sandhu, who voted against expanding the urban boundary previously and said he will do so again because he doesn’t see any information to justify doing so that is different than what was available in 2017.

Coun. Peter Ferragine seemed more perturbed than anything that the matter was even coming before council at this time, particularly given the work the town put into its Official Plan and the multi-year process that accompanied it, a sentiment seconded by Coun. Ron Orr.

When the golf course closed, Ferragine said, the town lost something that more housing won’t be able to replace. For this project to be successful when the Official Plan expires in 2031, Ferragine wants the developer to be a better partner to Bradford West Gwillimbury.

“It’s really frustrating to see this… to me, it’s greed by the developer,” he said. “For everything that they’ve accomplished in this town so far, I haven’t seen much from this developer so far, other than the minimal they have to produce when they create a planned subdivision.

“(Other developers) have stepped up to do more for our community,” Ferragine added. “And from this developer, I have yet to see anything.”

And if they’re going to develop, they should help create a proper community.

“There needs to be a much greater focus from developers… to building a complete community and not just coming in and building subdivisions and trying to put as many homes as possible,” said Coun. Jonathan Scott. “We know we need to do better in terms of housing supply across southern Ontario, but we still have to have good planning.”

Only Deputy Mayor James Leduc delivered comments closer to a middle ground, given the context of the land the town may require – some 502 hectares for new development – pending the outcome of the MCR. Mayor Rob Keffer described the MCR as the “unknown,” in the entire process but stated the requests made on behalf of the municipality have been to direct that growth elsewhere in the county.

“We didn’t ask for that growth: the province demanded it on us,” Leduc said. “This council has put resolutions forward to reduce that. We don’t want that growth; we’ve done a great job of planning that growth. But this application – whether it’s premature or not – they had the right to bring this to us.”

Whether it’s the Bradford Highlands property or the Bearsfield lands at Line 6 and Sideroad 10 or anywhere else in the municipality, council will have to make decisions about what land will be required to meet the demands of the province’s population figures.

But not immediately. At this stage in the planning process, town staff have not made a recommendation to councillors on the application and no decision was made stemming from the May 31.

Ahead of the meeting, councillors and staff received several concerns from the public who were not comfortable with the digital format. The town will be holding a second in-person public meeting on the OPA later this year, to ensure all comments are collected.