Toronto Star
NEWS, Sunday, October 19, 2003, p. A1

Environmental groups maintain homes will never be built.
Controversy doesn't curb buyers' interest, sales agent says.

Mike Funston
Staff reporter

Homebuyers were snapping up choice lots on the environmentally sensitive Oak Ridges Moraine yesterday despite warnings from protesters outside a builder's Richmond Hill sales office that the development will never get off the ground.

About 25-30 people peacefully picketed the site of the proposed Macleod's Landing subdivision by Aspen Ridge Homes on the west side of Yonge St. at Stouffville Rd., waving "Reclaim the Moraine" and "Save It - Don't Pave It," placards at the official opening.

A steady stream of browsers and buyers visited the sales office throughout the day despite the leaflets from protesters who reminded them of premier-designate Dalton McGuinty's pledge to block development of 6,600 homes on the moraine, including those proposed by Aspen Ridge.

Sales agents reported they were so busy, in fact, they could barely find a moment to speak to reporters.

Agent Mike Swinden said sales were going well but wouldn't divulge figures or comment on the demonstration.

"Asked if the protest was hurting sales, Swinden replied, "Why would it?" At a Liberal party policy conference in Etobicoke yesterday, McGuinty said, "Anybody who has any kind of interest in the moraine and those developments in particular, should understand that there is now a government in place in the province of Ontario that is committed to providing permanent protection to the moraine."

McGuinty insisted his government will stand by its commitment to halt the 6,600 planned houses on the environmentally sensitive tract of land.

He said given that his party's platform has been public for a year, developers shouldn't be surprised that they will be forced to abandon their plans there.

Staff in the premier-designate's office have been examining their options when it comes to halting the project, including passing a cabinet order, introducing legislation or launching a court challenge to stop the development approved by the former Tory government.

In Richmond Hill, potential buyers ranged from young families looking for a townhouse in the $253,000-$315,000 range to others trying to buy detached homes ranging from $320,000 to $518,000.

"We need to be here to give people the information they need so they don't throw away their life savings on a house that will probably never be built," said Rick Smith, of Environment Defence Canada, one of the protest groups.

"With all the billboards they've put up on Yonge St., the builder's strategy is to entice people in here and advance this development as much as possible before the new government takes office (on Thursday)."

The builder isn't being fair to the public by selling houses and accelerating work in the face of McGuinty's pledge, Smith said.

"We had complaints from area residents that graders started working 24-hours a day in response to (McGuinty's) announcement."

The Aspen Ridge site had been cleared by bulldozers although no utility services or roads have been installed and no homes have gone up.

Other builders involved on the moraine are Brookfield Homes and The Kaitlin Group. The developers have issued a statement noting the process has involved approvals at the municipal, provincial and federal levels and consultations with interest groups. They contend it's too late to stop their projects.

Blocked by security guards who threatened to arrest them if they ventured on to the property, Smith and other protesters handed out leaflets to motorists entering the site.

Some stopped to politely accept them and listen to their views, while others ignored them and drove on.

Some passers-by honked or waved to show their support, but others gave protesters the finger. One man driving a luxury model SUV, aimed it at Josh Matlow, of Earthroots.

Matlow stepped back from the slow-moving vehicle as the driver grinned at him. No police were present. Matlow just shook his head in disgust.

David Donnelly, of the Environmental Defence Canada, said most of the prospective buyers are "hard-working, good people who are being lured into thinking they're buying the house of their dreams and that's appalling. We're here to make sure they have the right information to make their decisions."

He added, "On a scale of 1 to 10 for environmental arrogance, these guys are an 11."

"Nothing cheap here," said environmental convert George Richards, who visited the sales site and then talked to protesters before deciding not to buy a home there. He said he'd like to see the area preserved instead.

Nick Morsillo recently moved with his wife to the GTA from Montreal and they are looking for a house. He wasn't familiar with the moraine controversy until talking to protesters.

"I don't know why they're selling houses if they can't build," said Morsillo, who decided against purchasing a home there, though more for economic reasons.

Ressa Sadovski also visited the pavilion but decided against buying. "The moraine is for all the people," she said.

Prospective buyer John Catosta said he was interested in buying, but the controversy over the future of development was giving him cold feet.

"I'm wondering what's going to happen to my money if I put it down on a house here."

With files from Caroline Mallan