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Published on Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Green angels don't need a Charlie

By John Barber, Globe and Mail

I don't know why I was surprised to learn that Renée Sandelowsky and Bonnie Littley were old pals. They do live at opposite ends of the megalopolis, biblical leagues apart, and lead entirely different local causes. But I should have known: The suburban mothers in the vanguard of North America's most successful regional-planning revolution do not work alone.

I had fancied myself the single Charlie connecting all these far-flung angels and their disparate local campaigns into the big picture. Renée in Oakville, Bonnie in Pickering, Natalie in Richmond Hill, Linda in Orono: a journalist's dream string. But that was just male vanity.

These women are a force unto themselves. The rest of us - now a wagonload of would-be influentials - are just riding along.

My inbox overflowed this week with earnest expressions of self-commendation upon the final approval of a progressive new plan to develop all that remains of rural Oakville, north of Highway 5. The town congratulated itself with fitting words from Mayor Rob Burton, Queen's Park noted its own significant contributions and at least one environmental group declared victory.

Even the dreadful Ontario Municipal Board, source of the approval, preened as it slid into position in the new order. The prose was fulsome, the action oily.
But they were all right: The Oakville decision is a landmark in the renaissance of regional planning, the latest good news about a new policy regime that still seems too good to be true.

You'd pinch yourself if you had been sitting in Ms. Sandelowsky's kitchen in northern Oakville seven years ago, along with neighbours Iris McGee and Allan Elgar, struggling to understand why town council was so willing to let developers do their worst with that same 3,000 hectares - an area equivalent to all of downtown Toronto south of St. Clair Avenue.

They were as green as their politics. They wanted to know whether or not it was normal for one of the leading developers in that tract to head up fundraising for the incumbent councillor, whom Mr. Elgar was challenging in the election. I assured them they had an issue on their hands.

Mr. Elgar went on to win, and he's still there. In fact, the kookiest idea he and Ms. McGee cooked up at the kitchen table - that municipalities enjoy the full right to zone developer-owned land green if they see fit - is now inarguable law in Ontario.

"I want to give special recognition to the leadership of Councillor Allan Elgar, who for the last seven years has been a tireless proponent of the town's right, now fully endorsed by the OMB, to use its power of land-use dedication," Mayor Burton said.

Ms. Sandelowsky joined council three years later than Mr. Elgar, but quit after a single term - something Ms. Littley, a first-term councillor way over in Pickering, lightheartedly resents. "Renée convinced me to run, then she didn't run herself," said Ms. Littley. Like her Oakville friend, a working mother, Ms. Littley has three children under 15.

She's stretched, but the world needs her. The same political forces the Oakville mothers overcame still dominate the eastern GTA. Speculators continue to buy up alleged conservation lands that stay protected due only to the constant vigilance of Ms. Littley and her grassroots allies. Day after day she struggles against some of the most testosterone-poisoned dunces in Ontario politics.

An angel? Not quite. Followers call her their "warrior princess."

Last fall a small farm zoned pure green, located in both the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve and the new greenbelt, sold to a developer for $31,000 an acre. Another slew of interests is attempting to build a mass-burn incinerator on the Lake Ontario waterfront. Ms. Littley is in the same place Ms. Sandelowsky found herself 10 years ago.

But they are not alone. The Oakville decision will help the cause on the troublesome eastern front.

An entire political, regulatory apparatus has swung into action behind the one of the most influential, irresistible "bunch of mothers" - as the notorious mandarin Robert Moses once described Jane Jacobs and friends - who ever stood in the way of folly.
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Categories: Features, Opinion




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