Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Friday November 13, 2020
Don’t give free rein to Ontario’s developers
Doug Ford is moving quickly but quietly to give Ontario’s developers the upper hand over Ontario’s environment.
For proof of this ominous change, check out how Premier Ford’s provincial government is stripping away the powers of Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities when it comes to approving new development in many of the province’s most vital natural areas.
Since mid-20th century, conservation authorities have been responsible not only for controlling floods but for protecting and restoring the land, water and natural habitats in this province. They’ve done a superb job, too, even if many developers consider them nothing more than red tape that slows or stops a money-making venture.
But in defiance of this long-held mandate, the Progressive Conservatives last week unveiled legislation that would curtail the conservation authorities’ ability to act as environmental guardians. And as if it was hoping the public wouldn’t notice what it was doing, the government slipped its proposals into its fat, omnibus budget bill.
The new legislation would end the conservation authorities’ role in offering an informed response to development applications and how those applications might impact sensitive natural environments. More power to decide the fate of a proposed development, however controversial, would be handed to the provincial Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry.
If, where it still had jurisdiction, a conservation authority refused to issue a permit or imposed conditions for a development, a disgruntled developer could appeal directly to the natural resources minister or the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal. Until now, someone appealing a permit denial would have to go directly to the local conservation authority’s executive.
What the Ford government is doing is politicizing environmental and land-use planning. At the very least, its proposed changes to the Conservation Authorities Act raise the possibility a developer with a friend in government could one day win approval for a project over well-founded, local opposition.
This shouldn’t happen but the government intends to go even further. The province doesn’t want watershed management and conservation to remain core conservation authority programs, for which municipalities would have to pay. Instead, they would become voluntary programs a municipality could choose to support — or not.
The Ford government seems to have a grudge against conservation authorities. Last year, it slashed its funding for the authorities by 50 per cent while telling them flood control must become their core mandate. Those shrunken budgets have made it harder for conservation authorities to plant trees, restore forests, and prevent soil erosion and water pollution, all jobs that make for a healthier environment.
If the new legislation passes, Ontario’s river valleys, flood plains, wetlands, Great Lakes shorelines — indeed, its water supplies — would be vulnerable to degradation in even more ways. It is also worth noting that the same government is increasingly resorting to ministerial zoning orders which allow it to permit development while bypassing the municipal planning process, environmental assessments and meaningful public consultation.
If Ford truly believes the current process for approving development is too cumbersome, he could streamline the rules, perhaps even imposing tighter deadlines for municipal governments and conservation authorities to respond to a project proposal.
But the interests of the economy, development and money have to be balanced with the interests of our environment. And where they can’t, the interests of the environment should prevail. Ontario should, as the song says, be “a place to grow.” But it should be place to grow for healthy environments, not just developers’ bank accounts. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)