By: Mike Anderson

A decades-long dispute over the future of 360 hectares of the North Gwillimbury Forest, known as the Maple Lake Estates lands, was finally settled last week when the province announced the lands would be transferred to the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) and become part of Ontario’s Greenbelt.

“We are protecting the North Gwillimbury Forest for future generations. I will be issuing an MZO [Minister’s Zoning Order] to ensure that these environmentally sensitive wetlands in Georgina’s North Gwillimbury forest are protected under the Greenbelt for future generations to come,” said Steve Clark, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, who was joined by York-Simcoe MPP Caroline Mulroney, LSRCA Board Chair Wayne Emmerson and CAO Rob Baldwin, Mayor Margaret Quirk and Ward 3 Councillor Dave Neeson for the announcement, which was streamed live on YouTube on June 16.

“Today is a historic day for the residents of Georgina and York Simcoe,” MPP Mulroney said. “For years, a solution was sought that would respect both the environment and the property rights of the owner. Yet, for years, this issue was left unresolved until now. Our government has answered the bell and is making sure that Georgina’s North Gwillimbury Forest remains untouched forever.”

The MLE lands, located west and south of Woodbine Avenue and Metro Road North, were slated for development by the DG Group, which planned to build a 1,703 unit subdivision on provincially significant woodland and wetlands.

However, the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance (NGFA), a local citizens group, won a landmark appeal at Ontario’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) in late 2019, which forced the Town of Georgina to rezone 99 per cent of the MLE lands as an “Environmental Protection Area,” preventing any future development.

According to NGFA Chair Jack Gibbons, the successful LPAT appeal also reduced the market value of the MLE lands, putting the province in a better position to buy it — although the exact terms of the deal have not been made public.

“When we started this campaign ten years ago, most people in Georgina thought we didn’t have a chance,” Gibbons said.

“Most people thought it was impossible to beat the DG group, but we’ve shown them that when citizens unite, they can achieve great gains for their community.”

Councillor Dave Neeson, a long-time opponent of the MLE development, also credited the community for standing up to the developer.

“The courage and tenacity of the Georgina community in tirelessly seeking the protection of the North Gwillimbury Forest has paid off – in a major way,” said Coun. Neeson in a media release.

“An environmental win of this magnitude will have a positive ripple effect well beyond the forest borders for generations to come, protecting the health of Lake Simcoe and the greater community.”

Gibbons says NGFA is looking forward to working with LSRCA to make the new nature preserve more accessible to residents, including the addition of more walking trails.

He also hopes the nature preserve can be expanded.

“The next step is to enhance the ecological value of the new nature reserve,” Gibbons said. “There’s a potential to either increase or create new wetlands. There is also a potential to create a habitat for grassland birds. So we are certainly looking forward to working with the conservation authority to make the nature reserve even better than it is now.”