A proposed law tucked away in Budget Bill 229 would severely limit the power of conservation authorities in Ontario.
As part of the province’s omnibus budget bill, in a section called Schedule 6, several amendments are proposed to the Conservation Authority Act.
In response to the proposed changes approximately 30 residents of Huron County rallied outside the Blyth office of Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson on Dec. 14.
“Everyone should protest Schedule 6 if they are interested in protecting our shared natural world. Mr. Ford’s Schedule 6 completely gives speculative developers free access to any development that they wish,” said Dr. Jim Hollingworth, who attended the rally and is a founding member of Green Goderich.
Schedule 6 strips conservation authorities the right to assist municipalities in development plans, and the right to protect fragile woodlands, river valleys and other green spaces, he said.
According to many provincial conservation authorities, Bill 229 would partly overturn the original purpose of their governance and move local accountability to provincial ministries.
Hollingworth, along with fellow Green Goderich member Dean Whalen, organized the rally outside of Thompson’s office. It attracted roughly 30 people.
A change in the bill would prevent conservation authorities from appealing municipal decisions. In some cases the minister of natural resources and forestry could take over the permit application process and development decisions from local authorities.
The changes could also mean losing oversight of development on floodplains, which is currently based on scientific and technical studies of the watershed.
Erinn Lawrie, a member of Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) and the chair of the environmental action committee with the Town of Goderich, spoke about the changes.
“MVCA is concerned these changes significantly limit and completely change the rule of conservation authorities to protect Ontario’s environment and to ensure property and people are safe from natural hazards,” Lawrie said in a presentation to Goderich council on Dec. 14.
According to Lawrie, Conservation Ontario, MVCA and most other conservation authorities asked the province to make several amendments to the proposed Schedule 6.
“First we asked them to remove Schedule 6 from the Budget Measures Act, which is Bill 229, since this bill has nothing to do with the budget bill,” said Lawrie.
Conservation Ontario and MVCA asked the provincial government to renegotiate their long-standing partnership with conservation authorities, to work towards identifying resources needed to implement watershed management.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) prepared an analysis of the changes and their implications of Budget Bill 229.
The proposed law would narrow the scope and powers of conservation authorities, which would impede the achievement of the overall purpose of the Conservation Authorities Act – to provide services that further conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources.
Changes would reduce the ability of Conservation Authorities to act as independent public bodies in land use planning and would introduce new rights for developers to force fast-tracking of development approvals. This could all be done without providing the opportunity for citizens who may wish to challenge decisions, which damage the environment.
According to local environmentalist and activist Hollingworth, these changes are alarming.
“The proposed changes were introduced as part of a budget bill, which means that the public’s right to comment under the Environmental Bill of Rights is overridden,” he said in a letter to the Signal Star.
“It appears that Premier Doug Ford’s proposed legislation expedites developments at the same time as it markedly reduces the ability of conservation authorities to carry out due diligence in providing environmental reports.”
These reports have historically proven to be invaluable in preserving health and diversity of watersheds.
“Developers only have to obtain the signature of one of Ford’s two ministers who already have his permission to green-light any development they choose,” said Hollingworth.
“No public scrutiny, no debate in the house, no input from the conservation authorities to be considered. Democracy for the wellbeing of the earth in Ontario has been delivered a most serious blow.”
The new proposed law also includes Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs). Conservation Ontario says this will allow the Minister to force a conservation authority to issue a permit even if it goes against their provincially delegated responsibility to protect people, infrastructure and the environment.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said MZOs play a critical role in Ontario’s economic recovery by accelerating provincial priority projects.
Yet, the ability for ministers to override conservation authorities conflicts with the job conservation authorities were expected to do in the first place – manage lands to protect sensitive ecosytems.
Lawrie said conservation authorities want to ensure all future development is located in areas that are safe from the risks associated with natural hazards and also protect the environment.
“We also asked the province to identify solutions to streamline the development review and approval process,” Lawrie said.
“One of our major concerns would be that we may be forced into approving permits that cause flooding and erosion and jeopardize human safety.”
The new law prevents conservation authorities from making appeals and a number of other changes will limit the work of conservation authorities.
Conservation Ontario, which represents Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities, has called on the government to repeal the legislature.
Kim Gavine, general manager of Conservation Ontario, said the province could have passed a budget bill about financial recovery from pandemic conditions, without adding negative impacts to the successful watershed management model in Ontario.
“What the province is proposing to do through the changes significantly threatens the independent, watershed-based approach of Ontario’s conservation authorities that municipalities and others rely on to protect our natural resources and to steer development away from creating or exacerbating flooding and other natural hazards,” said Gavine.
“This isn’t what you would expect a government to do in light of the growing and more complex climate change impacts we are experiencing.”
Gavine said the approval of the bill hurts Ontario’s environment as conservation authorities will now have the challenge of adapting to a new law, which limits their ability to protect people and property and water, soil and habitat in their watershed communities.
“Wetlands are particularly vulnerable to urban and industrial developments. Wetlands benefit the natural world and also the economy. They provide habitat for a wide variety of species, some of which are diminishing in numbers and some are also endangered,” Hollingworth added.
“Wetlands also support plants and animals that can only exist in a wetland habitat. For the economy, wetlands mitigate against flooding and erosion, they absorb pollutants, purify water, protect shorelines from extreme wave action, provide habitat for fish and birds.”