Gutting Environmental Protections, Opening the Greenbelt
Doug Ford has been talking about opening the Greenbelt for years. Every time he does, public reaction has pushed him to walk it back. May that be the case again.
For context, the Ontario Greenbelt is a large swath of land around the GTA that is protected from development in order to preserve its environmental and agricultural value. The most productive agricultural land in Ontario happens to be in the places where the most people live, and we’re already losing hundreds of acres of agricultural land to housing development and highways every day; the Greenbelt is supposed to be a way of maintaining our ability to feed ourselves into the future, and maintaining the environmental integrity of our province as we grow. The Ford PCs are proposing swapping existing Greenbelt lands for other lands that are not currently considered part of the Greenbelt.
I can’t say I’m surprised that they’re trying to do it again, given that they’ve tried so many times before. I’m still stunned though. I should clarify that this is in addition to Bill 23, but is greatly facilitated by Bill 23, which drastically reduces environmental protections in line with previous cuts to Conservation Authorities. Before I move on to the implications of Bill 23, I want to outline some particularly negative things about this effort to reopen the Greenbelt:
- The lands they’re talking about opening to development are mostly already owned by developers. In one case, a developer bought up agricultural land just two months ago (September 15th) for $80M, just over a month before Bill 23 was introduced and six weeks before this land swap was proposed. That land would not have been worth $80M as agricultural land, and it will be worth much, much more than $80M to a developer if this land swap goes ahead.
- This is where the talk of things seeming to be corrupt come in: developers are acting on this before it’s even announced, and spending enormous amounts of money to do so. If the land remains protected, that developer’s farmland will not be worth the $80M they spent on it. The same goes for the rest of these lands, much of which was purchased since Ford first promised to open the Greenbelt to development back in 2018.
- The proposed changes would add more land to the Greenbelt than it would take away, but it’s not apples to apples. Taking land out of the Greenbelt for development into neighbourhoods doesn’t just affect the land that it’s built on; it disrupts the ecosystem in all of the land around it. And much of the land they propose to add to the Greenbelt in trade is in river valleys in the GTA; if those lands aren’t already protected, they should be, in addition to the Greenbelt.
And this is one of the ways that this proposed swap leans on Bill 23, which significantly reduces the power of Conservation Authorities. Here’s how:
- For context: Conservation Authorities were already undermined in 2020, including being subjected to the very municipalities they’re supposed to regulate, and not being allowed to appeal planning decisions before the Ontario Land Tribunal (so developers can appeal municipal decisions, but CAs can’t), and allowing the Minister to overrule a CA decision and issue his own permits.
- On top of the funding cut they sustained in 2020 that made CAs more dependent on municipalities, Bill 23 gives the Minister the authority to stop them from raising any of their fees.
- The Minister’s ability to force CA’s to issue permits to develop lands they otherwise wouldn’t issue would be extended to include a part of the Planning Act that allows municipalities to request that the Minister effectively rezone a particular property. If I’m reading it correctly (and I may not – it’s a challenging read, please correct me if I’m wrong!) this just makes it easier for the Minister to issue an order skipping all of the regulation at once.
- “Currently, several factors must be considered when making decisions relating to a permission to carry out a development project or a permit to engage in otherwise prohibited activities. The factors include the possible effects on the control of pollution and the conservation of land. The Act is amended to instead require consideration of the effects on the control of unstable soil or bedrock.”
This is a HUGE change. CAs were started after Hurricane Hazel in 1954 to prevent people from building in areas that are prone to flooding, but since then they’ve become a major way that habitat is preserved and pollutants are regulated. This change alone drastically reduces environmental protection in Ontario, and further reduces the power of CAs to regulate development. While they were started to preserve human lives, their mandate evolved over time to preserve the environment we live in; this puts them firmly back in the first category, making sure buildings that go up will stay standing, period.
- “Regulation making powers are amended to provide that the Minister may make regulations limiting the types of conditions that may be attached to a permission or permit.” When a CA issues a permit, it sometimes comes with conditions: you may build X on lot Y if you improve Z. Now the Minister can limit those conditions. And because of the changes I mentioned above that allow the Minister to issue his own permits, or to set a timeline for an Ontario Land Tribunal decision that results in it being thrown out, if a Conservation Authority chooses not to issue permits at all because they are limited in how many conditions they can put on it, they’re likely to be appealed and lose. Conditions were the way to allow development of land that otherwise wouldn’t be approved; limiting conditions makes an all-or-nothing approach much more likely, and CAs are likely to lose if they go for the “nothing” option.
- Third parties are no longer able to appeal decisions. The government has been explicit about their desire to limit “NIMBYism” (NIMBY means Not In My Back Yard, opposition to development in one’s neighbourhood), but this would also limit anyone who opposes a development for any reason; and in the context of building in the Greenbelt, this prevents environmental advocates from using the system’s checks and balances.
- The Planning Act currently requires developers to convey a portion of the land they want to develop to the municipality for parks and green space, or to pay in lieu. Schedule 9 of Bill 23 cuts the amount developers need to convey to municipalities in half, so that’s either less parks or less money for municipalities; either way, more units to sell (and more profit for developers).
- Schedule 10 creates a new Act to expedite the creation of wastewater treatment facilities to support new development in Durham and York. It explicitly states in the summary: “Certain orders and approvals under the Environmental Assessment Act are terminated, and the projects are exempted from the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993.”
Flat out, entire sections of existing legislation just won’t apply to the building of this plant.
It also gives the Minister the ability to “remove obstructions to the project”, including: “1. A building or other structure. 2. A tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation. 3. A prescribed thing.” So if there was anything on the land in question that is protected and would get in the way (such as protected species, heritage buildings, or any “prescribed thing”) the Minister can just issue an order to get rid of it.
The combined effect of all of these changes, especially in concert with the changes Ford’s PCs made in 2020, is that nothing can stand in the way of development unless the government wills it.
Check out the next post to see what we can do about it.