The Ontario legislature is moving ahead with a Ford government bill to remove powers that allow local environmental regulators to protect communities against flooding and erosion. This despite warnings from those local environmental authorities that the changes would give new powers to provincial cabinet ministers to make political decisions about construction and industry projects that are not based on scientific evidence.
Conservation Ontario, which represents all 36 regional conservation authorities in the province, has asked the government to eliminate provisions of the bill that would take powers away from them. The association that represents municipalities across Ontario has also called on the government to revise its proposal.
As of Monday, the bill was in its final stages of debate at Queen’s Park. But a growing backlash has already provoked some resignations on a key panel.
Former Toronto mayor David Crombie resigned as chair of the Greenbelt Council in protest over the weekend, along with six members of the council, which advises the province on land use planning issues across the Greenbelt.
The bill “will cut the heart out of watershed planning, which is vital to environmental planning in the province of Ontario,” says Crombie.
The new rules will, for one, require that conservation authorities issue a permit to developers when something called a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) is issued, unless the project sits in the Greenbelt. Because MZOs can be issued by the minister of municipal affairs and housing, critics worry that the province will use this power to bypass the conservation authority’s science-based permitting process.
“It takes away our ability to use science to make good decisions, to keep people safe,” says Deborah Martin-Downs, chief administrative officer of Credit Valley Conservation, who also resigned from the Greenbelt Council on Sunday.
Conservation authorities are allowed to attach conditions to these permits. But they won’t always have the final say regarding those conditions, because the legislation also adds new pathways to appeal conservation authority decisions.
“Ultimately, the conditions that are set could be appealed to the minister of natural resources,” says Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark.
This legislation, which amends the Conservation Authorities Act, is being introduced in Schedule 6 of Bill 229, an omnibus budget measures bill.
“They tried to slip it by the people of Ontario by burying it in a budget bill,” says NDP environment critic Sandy Shaw.
Critics worry that the new rules will make it easier for developers to build on wetlands, which help control flooding by absorbing excess rainwater during storms.
“We can’t just sit by and allow this to happen when we know that the science is being ignored,” says Andrea Kirkwood, associate professor of biology at Ontario Tech University.
Proposed development in Pickering ‘a flashpoint’
The Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA) has expressed some reservations about a high-profile development proposal in Pickering that threatens to pave over 55 acres of the Duffins Creek wetland, which was designated provincially significant in 2005.
“Our board has been very clear that we do not support the destruction of wetlands,” says Jennifer Innis, chair of the TRCA’s board of directors.
The province issued an MZO at Pickering’s request in order to fast track the project, which will add a film studio and warehouse to the Durham Live casino and entertainment complex.
This new legislation appears to effectively guarantee approval for the project, regardless of the TRCA’s own assessment.
“This is making decisions involving the environment based on politics,” says Innis. “And the effects and the consequences are massive and in many cases they’re irreversible.”
The TRCA says they were not briefed or consulted on these new changes, which limit their decision-making power in the case when an MZO is issued.
The new rule “was a complete and utter shock,” says Innis. “Not myself nor any member of our staff or board had any inclination that this was coming down.”
Clark says the change “was a direct result of discussions” the government had with “stakeholders, conservation authorities and municipalities.”
Clark could not say conclusively, though, whether any conservation authorities were consulted on this change.
“I’ll have to go back to the ministry and find out exactly the conversations that have taken place in the last week. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of feedback from conservation authorities and municipalities.”
The TRCA is among 24 conservation authorities out of the 36 across the province that have either publicly criticized the original draft of the bill or explicitly called for changes.
The MZO piece was part of a set of amendments that were voted into Schedule 6 during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs on Friday. Some of the amendments addressed concerns raised by the conservation authorities and environmental groups.
“I felt like we were getting somewhere, that the government was listening,” says Innis. “And then in the last minute, in the 11th hour, if you will, they threw in this amendment change on the MZO, which crosses the line.”
Shaw, a member of the standing committee, says she and other opposition members had less than 24 hours to review nearly 100 pages of amendments.
“Parliamentary democracy requires or asks that MPPs also get to have a fair shot at understanding what the government’s proposing and to be able to push back to suggest changes. And they’re not doing that,” says Shaw.
As of Monday, the bill was undergoing its third and final reading in Queen’s Park. After the reading, the province may vote the bill into law.
“It was a shambles of a democratic process,” says Crombie.
Clark expressed disappointment and frustration at the recent comments from Crombie and other members of the Greenbelt Council.
“I happen to believe that the MZO is a very important tool that gives our province an opportunity to create jobs,” says Clark. “We’ve had a couple of MZOs where we needed to clarify that conservation authority permit between the conservation authority and the proponent, and we felt that the best time to do it was when the act was open in the budget bill.”
Global News also reached out to Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski, who is given the power to repeal conservation authority decisions and issue his own permits. His office declined our request for an interview.
“This will embolden some to just thumb their nose at the process and take it to the minister and try and push things ahead,” says Martin-Downs.
Innis believes the new rules are short-sighted.
“It’s unfortunate because the government is choosing to pit the development industry against everyone else,” says Innis. “We can work together with our partner municipalities and we should be working together to grow and to stimulate our economy in an environmentally sensitive way.”
On Monday, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs announced $30 million in funding over the next five years to support wetland creation and restoration across the province.
Developers and landowners
Eighteen members of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association (OHBA) are registered to lobby in support of the amendments contained in Schedule 6, according to the Ontario lobbyists registry. There are no other organizations or individuals registered to lobby for these changes.
The OHBA, which bills itself as the “voice of the residential construction industry in Ontario,” declined our request for an interview at this time. However, OHBA CEO Joe Vaccaro did email us the following statement: “OHBA recognizes the important work conservation authorities do within their mandate by providing protection for people and property in floodplains and hazard lands.”
Landowner groups have also spoken out in support of Schedule 6.
“I’m hoping that the regulations, when they get them out, will be such that conservation authorities have a lot less power,” says Kyle Cronk, president of the Lake Erie North Shore Landowner Association (LENSLA).
Cronk is involved in an ongoing dispute with the Kettle Creek Conservation Authority regarding the planned construction of a retaining wall along his lakeshore property.
“Citizens should have the right to protect their property,” says Cronk, who participated in the province’s public consultation sessions earlier this year. “The policy should not be left up to the bureaucrats to direct us because landowners are better conservation people than the conservation bureaucrats themselves.”
The province spent a year and a half gathering feedback from conservation authorities, municipalities and interest groups in preparation for these changes.
“We’ve come up with a piece of legislation that’s going to include accountability, transparency and consistency into the Conservation Authorities Act and at the same time also allow conservation authorities to focus in on their mandate, which we feel they’ve crept away from over the years,” says Environment Minister Jeff Yurek.
“I think it’s excellent for democracy to have more debate and consultation with regard to this legislation and the amendments coming forward. And we will reach, hopefully, an area where it’ll be acceptable for the conservation authorities.”
The province’s 36 conservation authorities are watershed-based agencies that help Ontario communities manage their natural resources. The province created its first conservation authorities in 1946. Their role in flood and natural hazard protection came into sharper focus in the aftermath of hurricane Hazel, which killed 81 people, mostly in the Toronto area.
The MZO is a tool that lets the municipal affairs minister directly zone land for certain purposes, bypassing aspects of the planning process. While MZOs have historically been used sparingly, the tool has become commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent report from the law firm BLG published in November, 31 MZOs have been issued during 2020 so far, compared to 70 between 1990 and 2019.
Beyond Schedule 6, there are other aspects of Bill 229 that have come under criticism. In particular, Schedule 8 of the bill exempts commercial logging operations from the Endangered Species Act.