Ontario’s moraine man

On first hearing the story, you might wonder why James McKellar (right) was given the job of helping settle one of the most critical environmental issues in the province: the fate of the Oak Ridges Moraine. The problem had bedevilled provincial governments of every political stripe for the past 15 years.

Appointed by then environment minister Chris Hodgson to a panel tasked with sorting out what had become a key issue for the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris, McKellar arrived at what he thought would be the first of a couple of meetings in Aug. 2001. He promptly told the other stakeholders he knew nothing about the moraine and the environmental battle sparked by proposed development projects near Richmond Hill.

“When I got up there,” he recalls, “I said, ‘what is all this Richmond Hill stuff’, I had no idea and they said, ‘oh man, where are you from, planet Mars?'”

As it turns out, the decision to appoint a professor who teaches real property at York’s Schulich School of Business was an inspired one. Soon all parties around the table were re-evaluating their positions in the debate over what would happen to the approximately 3,000 sq km of ecologically sensitive land.

“He was a breath of fresh air,” says Debby Crandall, executive director of the STORM (Save The Oak Ridges Moraine) Coalition, of McKellar. “He made it clear from the beginning that he had no axe to grind and that was unusual and delightful.”

 Above: Green area shows the extent of the Oak Ridges Moraine

For those who might be as unfamiliar with the Oak Ridges Moraine as McKellar was, it is a 20-kilometre-wide land formation that resulted from the last ice age and runs 165 km from the Niagara Escarpment to the Trent River. In addition to all its qualities as a superb natural habitat for all manner of flora and fauna, the moraine also happens to have a crucial impact on water quality in the region. It acts, McKellar explains, as an aquifer recharge and is located at the headwater of both the Humber and the Don rivers as well as Lake Simcoe.

“It’s fundamental to the ecology of the region. If the Richmond Hill piece had been severed, it would have been devastating,” he says.

McKellar, who recently completed the last of his two terms as vice-chair of the Oak Ridges Moraine Foundation, says the “phenomenal” result of the process was legislation that received all-party approval in the provincial legislature a mere six months after the group began its work.

 Above: The moraine boasts a diverse and rich natural environment

In addition to preserving the majority of the Richmond Hill land as a greenbelt, the group also managed to limit development on what’s called the countryside portion, where homes will be built to a much lower density than originally planned.

McKellar says the hot-house approach that Hodgson used, bringing the developers, environmentalists and three regional governments together in the same room with a 30-day time limit for reaching an agreement, worked well because of Hodgson’s ability to foster good relations at the grass roots level, despite being a member of a government that had more than its share of critics. McKellar also credits his own neutral stance and a facility for restating stakeholders’ entrenched positions in more flexible words as key to breaking an impasse that had existed since the early 1990s.

Both Crandall and Michael Scott, executive director of the Foundation, agree that McKellar has a way with words that made a big difference. “He has a real skill,” says Scott, “He made complex and politically charged issues very clear and sound common sense.”

Although his term ended in March, McKellar is still working on the moraine’s future. He is currently helping draft a response to the provincial government’s growth plan for the area on behalf of the affected homebuilders, titled “Pull Don’t Push”, which reflects the kind of philosophical challenge he and others put to all the stakeholders.

McKellar says he told the homebuilders who wanted to develop the moraine land, “Listen guys, if the region doesn’t do this [protect the moraine], you’re not going to be building. It’s that simple. People want to live here because of its environmental quality. It’s in your interest to work with these real genuine concerns.”

As a result, the builders are now onside with the plan and support the development and environmental recommendations “100 per cent.”

For people more accustomed to the intense lobbying and discreet closed-door negotiations that the development industry is sometimes known for, the turnaround came as a welcome surprise. “I don’t believe in this, there’s the good guys and there’s the bad guys…that doesn’t get you anywhere,” says McKellar. “The homebuilders have a vested interest, they do a service, and the environmentalists do too.”

As pleased as he is with the meeting of the minds and the hard work by formerly bitter opponents to come to terms, McKellar is under no illusions about the hard realities forcing everyone to find a solution. First among them, he says, was the Walkerton tragedy, which brought the issue of water quality to the public so suddenly. “Walkerton shook us,” he says. “Ontarians always believed the last problem we had was water: ‘We got a lake and a bottle of chlorine, what more do you need?'”

He also credits the amount of scientific data that was collected during the debate, particularly the information gathered by volunteer organizations such as STORM and Ontario Nature (formerly the Ontario Federation of Naturalists). “It came about because of the environmental community. These people are really smart people, honest hard-working and the Oak Ridges Moraine brought them together, McKellar says. “I was really taken with them, they compromised… they were very practical.”

The other hard reality was that the moraine had become a key election issue that was centred on the politically strategic 905-area ridings. With so much at stake for so many, there was plenty of added incentive to come together on a solution.

“This thing gave birth to something I don’t think anyone would have ever anticipated a decade ago: that the province would step in and deal with regional planning issues.” And that, says McKellar, is the most significant change in thinking to come out of the process. “Toronto was at that point where it couldn’t continue to keep building at the rate it was building. This was a real turning point in the shape of this area.”

Today the foundation supports research and education into moraine conservation by distributing money from a $15-million fund it received from the province. That money, rather than being endowed, is used to leverage matching funds from private donors that enables local groups to work through the detailed process of securing land easements, supporting research and promoting education about the importance of the Oak Ridges Moraine.

When he thinks about what was supposed to be a couple of meetings where he played the role of the “token academic”, McKellar still marvels at what he and his fellow board members accomplished in four years. “When I look back on it, I’m surprised,” he says. “And I ask myself, how did we do that?”

The answer, it seems, is a few well-crafted words, some good listening skills and good timing.