‘Alarming in the extreme’: PCs’ developer driven housing plan sparks unprecedented backlash
A trio of legislative proposals around future planning across Ontario, rammed through Queen’s Park over the last 28 days by Premier Doug Ford and his PC government, is facing dissent from all sides. The objection is so strong, and from such a wide array of sources, that it begs the question: who actually wants these radical changes?
Citizens in urban, suburban and rural communities have taken to the streets outside MPP offices demanding their elected officials stand up for their rights; environmental groups have shredded the PC proposals, labelling them as nothing more than a give-over to developers that will destroy Ontario’s invaluable ecosystems; municipal councils have hurriedly passed motions urging the PCs to backtrack on their damaging proposals; and the agency representing Ontario’s 444 municipalities has said the legislative moves are built on a premise that is “objectively false”, will create more problems than they solve, and cost communities (taxpayers) as much as $5.1 billion between now and 2031.
Provincial Conservation Authorities, key fixtures of Ontario’s land use planning regime that ensure growth is pursued in a safe, sustainable manner that protects sensitive habitat, will be hobbled by the proposals, and have released statements demanding the PCs press pause on this destructive push that would practically remove them from the development process.
The three pieces of legislation in question have been released in rapid-fire succession in a clear attempt by the PCs to prevent any real analysis or scrutiny. Professional groups, opposition parties, municipalities and residents have barely been able to digest the omnibus pieces of legislation that will transform the province for generations to come. Efforts to mobilize significant public response—something that has forced the PCs to backtrack on similar bills in the past—are now taking shape, despite the attempt to ram the developer-driven policies into law as the holiday season sets in.
The proposals include Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, introduced at Queen’s Park on October 25. This was quickly followed by a proposal listed on the Environmental Registry on November 4 to remove 7,400 acres from the Greenbelt through significant changes to the Greenbelt Act. Finally, on November 16, Bill 39, the Better Municipal Governance Act, was introduced which, if passed, would trigger unprecedented changes to the way land use planning is conducted in Ontario, expand the “strong mayor” powers beyond Toronto and Ottawa, and undermine the very foundation of democracy—majority rule—by allowing certain bylaws to be passed by councils with only one-third support.
Advocates gather outside Premier Doug Ford’s office in Toronto protesting the legislative changes put forward by his government that weaken environmental protections and will destroy Ontario’s Greenbelt.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Looked at in tandem, these three proposals are all part of the PCs’ election pledge to construct 1.5 million homes by 2031. Broken down, Bill 23 would make it easier for large developers to get their projects approved by stripping planning power from upper-tier municipalities, severely weakening Ontario’s wetland protection system—potentially unlocking more land for urban development—and block conservation authorities from much of the planning process, removing their ability to challenge proposed projects to protect watersheds or other ecologically vital lands.
The proposed changes to the Greenbelt would unlock 7,400 acres of previously protected land for growth. Finally, as the lubricant for these bloated legislative machinations, the PCs introduced Bill 39, the Better Municipal Governance Act, which would create unprecedented powers for municipal leaders to approve development projects that support the PC housing goals. Most concerning, it would eliminate the need for councils to have a majority vote in favour of projects, and only require one-third of councillors to support plans brought forward by developers.
“We are appalled at this attack on one of the essential tenets of our local democracy, and a fundamental democracy mechanism: majority rule,” reads a letter sent to Toronto Mayor John Tory—who supports the Bill—written by five former mayors of Ontario’s largest city: Art Eggleton, David Crombie, Barbara Hall, David Miller and John Sewell. “This is alarming in the extreme. With the integrity and wellbeing of Ontario and its residents on the line, people, communities and civic institutions are organizing for an historic struggle across the province.”
According to Steve Clark, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, these “bold actions” are necessary to reach the PCs’ promise of constructing 1.5 million homes by 2031.
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the advocacy organization representing the province’s 444 municipalities, disagrees.
As part of a submission sent to the Province following the First Reading of Bill 23, Colin Best, AMO’s president, outlined “serious concerns” with the legislation in its current form, stating it “benefits private interests at the expense of public interests.”
“All members of the Provincial Parliament will need to consider in whose interest they govern,” Best states. “The province has offered no evidence that the radical elements of the bill will improve housing affordability,” the submission reads. “It is more likely that the bill will enhance the profitability of the development industry at the expense of taxpayers and the natural environment.”
The same is stated in a letter sent to the PCs signed by hundreds of residents, environmental organizations and citizens groups from across Ontario.
“The government’s proposed changes would damage our existing neighbourhoods, towns and cities as well as the farmland and natural areas that sustain them, which in turn, would harm our ability to feed ourselves, protect ourselves from flooding, and address climate change risks,” the letter states.
The Ontario Farmland Trust has also pushed back against the proposed changes, stating they would only accelerate the loss of farmland in Ontario—which is currently seeing approximately 319 acres of farmland lost every day to urban growth and aggregate extraction.
“Any potential positive changes for agriculture in Bill 23 are overshadowed by the significant threats it poses to the overall Ontario agricultural system and the associated natural habitats, which we rely on for significant ecosystem services,” the statement from the OFT reads.
In many ways, the sweeping changes meant to force Ontario toward 1.5 million new homes are clear evidence of tunnel vision. As the OFT states, the PCs are failing to consider the system that supports Ontario’s farmland. It is not simply acres of plowed fields that exist in a vacuum. These fields are supported by the nearby woodlots which prevent erosion, and the groundwater systems that keep the soil from drying out. The loss of greenspace and any threat to the environment, is also a threat to farmland. This is particularly true when it comes to wetlands.
“It is important that both natural areas and farmland receive high levels of protection in land use planning policy,” the OFT states. “Wetlands are crucial to our landscape, and help to mitigate and prevent floods. Without them, the landscape is at risk of increased flooding, which means that farmlands may experience higher levels of erosion that wash away precious soil. It takes approximately 100 years for one inch of soil to form, so it is crucial that we protect what we have.”
Researchers around the world have pleaded with local and regional governments to protect existing local agricultural production, as climate change will prevent the current system of integrated global food production and supply from operating as it does today.
As the cost to ship food becomes more expensive and polluting while the atmosphere can no longer sustain the impacts of deforestation for food production, locally grown produce and nearby sources of dairy and livestock will become critical to future food security. The PCs and their developer friends, critics warn, are about to destroy some of the most fertile farmland in North America, forever.
The Greenbelt is also now under dire threat, risking the health of the GTHA’s fresh water supply and vital greenspaces that cleanse our local airshed.
Instead, developers and the PCs are promising to cover the entire landscape with more sprawl, releasing millions more tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year.
Any holistic approach to curb temperature increase will be trampled upon by the proposed slate of changes by the PCs. Bill 23 would eliminate the term “wetland complex”, meaning that each individual wetland would need to be considered on its own merits (criteria like habitat, tree cover, water quality etc), and reach a certain threshold to be classified for protection. Coupled with the Bill’s proposed removal of threatened or endangered species from the criteria for preservation, the end result will see a lot of smaller, but no less crucial wetlands, removed from provincial protection. They will be left vulnerable to land gobbling developers and speculators.
The PCs tunnel-vision plan to build 1.5 million homes in Ontario by 2031 will come at the cost of valuable farmland and environmentally sensitive greenspaces, putting future residents and cities at risk of environmental disasters.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The PCs have proposed to create a new “offsetting” regime that would require developers to commit to replacing the wetlands they destroy by constructing more wetlands or woodlots elsewhere, or paying into a fund that completes such work. These offsetting schemes have been proven to be incredibly difficult to implement and enforce—the PCs have already shown they are not interested in applying environmental protection laws such as the Species at Risk Act.
“Such approaches have been proven to fail in other jurisdictions where they have been attempted and ignore the fact that wetlands typically occur where they do because of connections to the groundwater regime,” reads the letter signed by hundreds of organizations, including Environmental Defence, Ontario Headwaters Institute, Water Watchers, Ontario Nature and the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. “In addition, replacing a 100-year-old woodland with newly planted trees will not replicate the ecological roles of the existing woodland.”
The same can be said for the proposed changes to the Greenbelt, which the PCs have attempted to disguise as an “expansion” by claiming the 7,400 acres lost to development will be replaced by 9,400 acres elsewhere. It’s a textbook example of greenwashing.
When asked by The Pointer, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) said there has been no indication from the government that the land added will be as ecologically valuable as the land that is being removed.
In addition to concerns about the ecological value of the land being “added” to the Greenbelt, the chunks of land being removed from protection will push urban development across the Greenbelt. The removal of any buffer between sensitive greenspace and the urban environment can significantly degrade the natural space's value in terms of habitat for wildlife, forest cover, surface water quality and flood protection. This degradation is then used as a justification for developing the land as it no longer has the environmental value it once did. It is the domino approach builders use to eventually replace huge expanses of forest and other greenspaces to make way for urban sprawl.
Black boxes are portions of land slated for removal from the Greenbelt. The yellow “A” box is the area proposed to be “expanded”.
(Environmental Registry Office)
Those tasked with ensuring lands sustain their ecological value—provincial conservation authorities—are severely weakened by the collection of legislative changes. It’s a transparent move by the PCs to eliminate any potential opposition on the grounds of environmental protection from the development process, paving the way for developers to have myriad projects approved, even those that could have potentially damaging impacts on sensitive ecosystems, habitat for endangered or threatened species, or even those built in hazardous areas, like a floodplain.
If approved, these bills will break the connection between municipalities and conservation authorities, preventing them from advising local governments on key environmental concerns.
“The plan review process by conservation authorities ensures the protection of the watershed-used approach and enables the connections to be made between flood control, wetlands, and other green infrastructure or natural cover, thus ensuring safe development,” Angela Coleman, the General Manager of Conservation Ontario, the organization which represents the province’s 36 conservation authorities, said.
Along with the general opposition from Conservation Ontario, a number of CAs have also released statements of opposition to Bill 23, including those covering the jurisdictions of Grey Sauble, Lake Simcoe, the Niagara Peninsula, Quinte, St. Clair Region, Nottawasaga Valley, the Rideau Valley, and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority which is responsible for most of Peel Region.
This tunnel-vision approach to land use planning is also evident in the PCs’ attempts to “reduce municipal duplication” and rip upper tier governments from the planning process.
Bill 23 would remove planning authority from the Region of York, Peel, Durham, Halton, Niagara, Waterloo and the County of Simcoe. The changes will remove upper tier municipalities from the approval process for lower tier official plans and plans for subdivisions. This will transfer approval authority for lower tier plans to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The Minister’s decisions are not subject to appeal. The Bill would only allow developers to appeal decisions to the Ontario Land Tribunal, if they don’t get what they want. Members of the public, municipalities and other stakeholders would no longer be allowed to appeal approvals granted to developers. This is raising questions about who the tribunal, which is supposed to protect public interests, would actually be serving.
According to AMO, these proposed changes “break the logical link between planning for development and servicing the development.”
“Supporting rapid growth efficiently requires a high degree of coordination,” the AMO submission reads. “Upper-tier municipalities do this currently by coordinating local plan alignment and managing service for maximum effect. Breaking this link is counterintuitive and will lead to inefficiency, confusion and potential gaps in the infrastructure required to support local growth.”
In effect, under the PCs’ new planning regime, a municipality could be forced to approve a development on an environmentally sensitive plot of land or prime farmland, far away from necessary servicing like proper roads to handle traffic influx, or water and wastewater pipes, and then be on the hook to pay for constructing these necessary services. And if they try to turn down such applications, the developer can easily appeal to the OLT because the PCs want only them to have that right. This similar lack of control for municipalities was seen in the PCs’ repeated use of Minister’s Zoning Orders over the last four years, which effectively veto any local decision and allow the Minister to approve development projects.
AMO estimates that this change, which effectively crushes the traditional urban planning philosophy that “growth pays for growth” will cost current taxpayers and municipalities dearly. The PCs are also proposing a bevy of changes to the way cities and towns can collect money from developers in the form of development charges, fees that are supposed to cover the costs of local infrastructure needed by the residents who move into the units sold by developers. AMO estimates the changes will cost communities $5.1 billion in lost revenue between now and 2031, which means property taxpayers will be on the hook for subsidizing the builders.
“Ontario’s goal of an additional 1.5 million homes is laudable and probably achievable. Schemes designed to incentivize developers at the expense of property taxpayers and the natural environment will not get the job done,” Best, the AMO president writes. “Previous governments have downloaded costs to municipalities and cut environmental protections to disastrous effect. At some point the bill will come due, and there will be a heavy price to pay.”
Email: [email protected]
COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story