Ontario Greenbelt development plan faces new threat from federal government

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Ontario Greenbelt development plan faces new threat from federal government
WATCH: The federal government may have the ammunition it needs to derail Premier Doug Ford’s controversial plan to develop portions of Ontario’s Greenbelt. Global News' Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Colin D’Mello reports – Jul 4, 2023

The federal government may have the ammunition it needs to derail Premier Doug Ford’s controversial plan to develop portions of Ontario’s Greenbelt, Global News can reveal.

A briefing note prepared in March for Canada’s minister of the environment and climate change lists 29 at-risk species that live — or are likely to live — on the previously protected lands.

The birds, reptiles, mammals and insects protected by federal laws could be used by Ottawa to force Ontario to slow or abandon its plan to build thousands of homes on land removed from the Greenbelt.

The government document, obtained exclusively by Global News through access to information laws, lists the endangered species protected under federal and provincial control.

It says a range of animals and plants on the land the Ford government removed from the Greenbelt in November are considered either threatened or endangered under the Species At Risk Act. That legislation is federal and could be leveraged by Ottawa to slow down or potentially even freeze developments on former Greenbelt lands.

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In November, the Ford government announced it would remove 7,400 acres of land from the Greenbelt and convert it into housing developments.

A sign marking where the Greenbelt begins in York Region. Global News

The memo to Canada’s environment minister is dated March 17, 2023. It appears to have been finalized days before Steven Guilbeault said the federal government would study lands around Rouge Park and hinted he could intervene with the province’s Greenbelt changes.

The documents obtained by Global News catalogue endangered or threatened species across the entire 7,400 acres that were removed.

The animals protected under federal legislation could cause a major headache for the Ford government and give its federal counterparts wide-ranging powers to slow or stop housing projects.

The federal government could also demand very specific and lengthy studies under the Impact Assessment Act.

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Ottawa could issue emergency orders to pause or block construction if it poses an immediate threat to an at-risk species on non-federal land. The government could, for example, block the destruction of a hedgerow or bank if it were home to a protected bird.

The laws give the federal government particular power to intervene if aquatic animals or migratory birds, which fall specifically under Ottawa’s jurisdiction, are involved. The document seen by Global News said 13 migratory birds were likely on the land removed from the Greenbelt.

Ottawa has already proven it is willing to wade into controversial provincial projects using at-risk species and climate legislation.

The Ford government’s signature Highway 413 project has been frozen since 2021 after the federal government decided to pause it and demand more detailed studies to protect at-risk species. In its decision to designate that project under the Impact Assessment Act, the federal government cited four federally protected species along the highway’s proposed route.

As a result, all construction on Highway 413 — including early works such as moving utility lines — has been frozen. The province will be unable to restart any physical work on the project until Ottawa decides it is satisfied.

Government documents suggest there are significantly more endangered and threatened species under the federal government’s care on the former Greenbelt lands than along the route of Highway 413.

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Blanding’s turtles, which are threatened, were confirmed to be in parcels of land the province has removed from the Greenbelt. Other endangered or threatened species confirmed to be on the land include the Acadian flycatcher, bank and barn swallows, barn owls and the eastern meadowlark.

Many of the creatures are also protected under Ontario’s own legislation for endangered wildlife.

Endangered plants such as the American chestnut, butternut and cucumber trees were also confirmed on the land.

In March, Guilbealt announced a study into planned development on former Greenbelt land near Rouge Park. Premier Ford dismissed the idea it would have any effect on his plans for the Greenbelt.

“It shouldn’t slow down our development plans, it’s adjacent, it’s not right there, but good luck to them,” Ford said.

The assertion in the documents seen by Global News that endangered and threatened species live across the lands removed from the Greenbelt, however, casts some doubt on Ford’s assertion.

Even if the federal government does not block housing developments on former Greenbelt lands, lengthy delays could be enough to kill the plan.

The Ford government said land removed from the Greenbelt would be returned to its protected status if developers could not start construction by 2025 and demonstrate “significant progress” in 2023.

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Minister Clark’s office said “all levels of government” must work together to build more housing, arguing the Greenbelt changes will create 50,000 new homes.

“As is the case with all new development, these projects must avoid impacts to species at risk and will be subject to all rules and regulations as set out in Ontario’s Endangered Species Act,” the spokesperson said.

“While we know that the federal government shares our goal of building 1.5 million homes in Ontario over the next 10 years, particularly at a time when it has set ambitious new targets for immigration, we need to work collaboratively to meet that goal.”

The extensive list of threatened or endangered species on Greenbelt lands could be the latest blow to the province’s housing promise. Ontario’s integrity commission is in the midst of probing allegations certain developers were given an unfair advantage and tipped off by the province about plans to change the Greenbelt.

Studies are also underway into the decision by Ontario’s auditor general looking at the financial and environmental fallout from the decision.

The federal memo said development proposals would need to be studied more deeply under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act before specific risks could be made clear.

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