Environmental groups are outraged as the Ontario government continues to push through orders that could see a warehouse built on wetlands.
The area in question is said to be provincially significant wetlands — and now the threat of clear-cutting brush without proper review has environmentalists raising the alarm.
“If we don’t stop them now, when are we going to stop them?” asks Emma Cunningham, part of an environmental group called ‘Environmental Action Now Ajax-Pickering.
Cunningham is one of hundreds of residents who, along with environmental groups, oppose the development happening near Bayly Street and Squires Beach Road in Pickering. It’s one of several buildings planned as part of Durham Live, an entertainment destination that includes the new Pickering Casino.
Over the past few weeks, dozens of people have shown up at the warehouse site in opposition to the plan. And perhaps most angering, they say, is the issuing of an order for the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority to approve a permit that would allow clear-cutting of brush for the next steps in the development — without proper consultation.
The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources issued the order Friday, advising the TRCA to “grant the permission on or before March 12, 2021” for the development to proceed.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Dr. Andrea Kirkwood, a freshwater ecologist at Ontario Tech. In a letter written to the TRCA, the scientist along with a group of biologists requested the process to be delayed so they could have ample time to review a compensation plan, as they say it could have effects on nearby Duffins Creek. And with the sudden order, she’s shocked to see how they are going about it.
“I just see them ramming through, changing, contorting laws to allow development now,” says Kirkwood. “With no regard for how this will impact future generations.”
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Moreover, new legislation appearing to be hidden in another bill could challenge legal disputes around the development as well. One is currently being brought by Environmental Defence Canada.
“It really is a mystery to everyone why a government would take such egregious measures,” says Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada.
The proposed legal change was contained in Bill 257, which mainly deals with initiatives aimed at making it easier to expand broadband internet access through changes to different approvals.
It’s a move being slammed by the opposition as well. The Ontario NDP says it “retroactively rewrites planning laws,” that could give “unchecked power” and “benefit developers.”
As for the warehouse application, in a statement released on the TRCA’s website March 5, the conservation authority says they were being forced to interfere with the wetlands.
“TRCA’s Board of Directors and staff, using a science-based approach to decision making and TRCA’s living city policies, would ordinarily decline permission of such a permit,” the statement said.
“TRCA’s Board of Directors must now, under duress, adhere to the Province’s legally mandated directive which conflicts with TRCA’s mandate to further the conservation, development, and management of natural resources in watersheds within our jurisdiction.”
Dr. Kirkwood says it’s unprecedented to see a government take action like this. She says the lands are important for water filtration and supporting other parts of the ecosystem as well. Even though there may not be anything on the surface — it is critical to the ecosystem for the wetlands to remain intact.
“When we think about habitats that support migrating birds. Of course any green space that we still have remaining is providing habitat to a whole array of organisms,” says Kirkwood.
The City of Pickering voted to request a minister’s zoning order last year to push through the development of the warehouse by local developer Triple Properties. The order avoids appeals and public consultations –allowing them to cut through red tape.
But some councillors, including Maurice Brenner, now question how it all played out.
“I didn’t know that the government of Ontario was going to strip away the rights and the votes of the gatekeeper, the TRCA,” says Brenner. “The way I voted and the way I spoke, would have been very very different,” he said.
“I would ask for a pause now, because there is too much conflicting information that needs to be sorted out.”
City officials and the provincial government both say it came down to jobs in the decision. In a statement to Global News, Mayor Dave Ryan says the developer will be replacing the lands lost.
“Pickering requested the MZO (minister’s zoning order) with the assurance that the wetlands would be properly compensated at a 1:1 ratio,” says Ryan.
“We acknowledge that recreating wetlands is not commonplace, but it is being done.”
The Pickering mayor also says when they were faced with major job loss as a result of COVID-19, they had to make a move. “We requested this to help bring over 10,000 jobs to the city,” he says.
It was issued after the developer commissioned an ecological study on the grounds, conducted by Beacon Environmental. Pickering officials say they haven’t seen it. However they were told by the company that the grounds provide storm water control, but there is limited ecological functions for flora, fish and wildlife.
Experts say there should be more studies done.
Although the TRCA and the developer Triple Properties will work on a compensation plan, Kirkwood says it’s the effects on the current land that will be harder to replace.
“When you take away natural cover — especially wetland which serves as filtration and absorption of floodwaters — if you remove that and replace it with pavement, you are absolutely going to have an effect on water quality.”
The only move left for Toronto Regional Conservation Authority now is to add conditions to the permit to lessen the impact on the grounds. But they do encourage residents to reach out with their concerns for their board director meeting taking place on March 12th. Local environmental groups are also planning a march on Saturday to protest the development.
“We’re ramping up. We’re trying to get more involved and we’re trying to have more action so that this doesn’t work out for them,” says Cunningham.
–With files from Nick Westoll