A dark day for Ontario: Bill 23 passes, dooms climate change strategies across the GTHA, locks in a future of urban sprawl
Despite objections from practically every sector involved in the urban planning process, including municipalities across Ontario, Premier Doug Ford and his fellow PC MPPs used their majority government to rush one of the most sweeping pieces of housing policy in the province’s history into law Monday.
Only 34 days had passed since the controversial Bill 23 was introduced.
The decision was met almost immediately with calls for the omnibus Bill to be repealed. Stakeholders continue to warn the public of a future defined by more urban sprawl and car-dependent cities across Southern Ontario, following nearly two decades of smart growth policies meant to protect the environment while creating complete, walkable communities.
Experts across the globe have advised regional and municipal policy makers to plan more dense growth that connects residents with transit in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
“Bill 23 drags Ontario forcefully and dramatically in the wrong direction, disregarding the advice of its own Task Force, along with all the hard-won lessons of the last 70 years, in favour of a return to the expensive low-density and car-dependent sprawl which is the root cause of our current housing and environmental crises,” Phil Pothen, Ontario Environmental Program Manager with Environmental Defence, said in a press release. “This dangerous Bill has been forced into law through a process designed to prevent meaningful consideration of its impacts, discussion with those affected, or on a time frame that reflects the enormity of the changes. We will all need to work together to see this legislation repealed.”
Steve Clark, the PC government’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, has repeatedly stressed that these legislative changes are necessary to spark housing development as Southern Ontario’s growth continues to create feverish demand. The Bill will allow the PC’s to follow through on their campaign pledge to build 1.5 million new homes across the province (primarily in the GTHA) by 2031.
“I am proud of the action this plan takes to increase the supply of housing of all types and restore the dream of homeownership for a generation of Ontarians,” Clark stated in a press release.
According to the release, Bill 23 will lead to much needed housing development by reducing fees for the construction of new homes, along with measures to support first-time home buyers.
Critics have highlighted the darker implications of the Bill which will shift many fees to build infrastructure needed by new residents from the developer onto municipalities, while affordable homes, contrary to language in the Bill, will be harder to build.
The legislation, experts warn, will also compromise environmental protections and remaining habitat and farmland by unleashing a wave of urban sprawl onto landscapes that had previously been protected.
“This is one of the most damaging and disgraceful pieces of legislation ever enacted by this province,” Bill Foster, chair of Forbid Roads over Greenspaces, said.
Bill Foster, the chair of Forbid Roads over Greenspaces, has been actively fighting the PC proposal to construct the Bradford Bypass through the provincially significant Holland Marsh Wetland Complex. It’s unclear how Bill 23’s changes to wetland classification will impact the sensitive ecosystem.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer files)
The numerous legislative changes in the Bill include:
Reworking Ontario’s Wetland Evaluation System which will significantly weaken the process by potentially eliminating the concept of a “wetland complex” and erasing large portions of the process that places weight on the interconnectedness of wetlands and surrounding habitats
Permits would not be required within lands regulated by conservation authorities, including wetlands, for developments approved under the Planning Act
Conservation authorities will lose the power to regulate or refuse permits based on “pollution or conservation of land”
The potential opening of large swaths of protected land for development as the Bill will remove regulations that prevent land managed by conservation authorities from being sold off for development
The removal of 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 pass approval authority for lower tier plans to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The Minister’s decisions are not subject to appeal
Public meetings will no longer be required for approval of a draft plan for subdivisions, leaving community members in the dark on development applications that are proposed in their city or town.
Ontario is already losing 319 acres of farmland every day to urban growth and aggregate extraction. Bill 23 will speed up this loss.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer files)
“Bill 23 has stripped Conservation Authorities of the power to refuse permission for sprawl or other land development that their experts know would cause flooding and erosion or destroy wetlands and other conservation lands,” Pothen said. “It goes still further, by prohibiting Conservation Authorities from agreeing to provide municipalities with the information and expertise they would need to have any hope of filling the gap in protection themselves.”
Speaking on The Pointer’s Ballot Vox podcast Tuesday, Pothen said Environmental Defence is currently considering its legal options to challenge the legislation, along with the myriad of other potential liabilities this Bill opens for the PC government.
The following actions by the PCs directly related to Bill 23, or in support of it through other moves, could lead to litigation: the attempt to allow a one-third vote, instead of a majority, at the municipal level for bylaws that would push PC priorities; stripping municipal governments of power to control their urban boundaries and planning decisions; failing to adhere to legislation around Indigenous rights and required consultations; creating planning policy that violates environmental legislation and climate change mitigation; housing approvals that violate existing legislation to protect species, wetlands and other sensitive ecosystems; forcing planning decisions that fail to create affordable housing, putting residents at risk of losing shelter.
The PCs, under Doug Ford, have a track record of pushing legislation that can be challenged through the courts. On Tuesday, Bill 124 was struck down by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. The controversial law limited the salary increases for many public sector workers to one percent annually for a three-year moderation period, throughout the pandemic. The court said this violated the charter rights of hundreds of thousands of employees, including nurses and teachers.
The housing legislation and supporting moves being fast-tracked by the PCs appear to include a number of legally questionable actions.
The full environmental implications of Bill 23 will not be felt for years, as Ontario is only now beginning to recognize the consequences of the cumulative effects of continued urban sprawl—urban heat islands, chloride filled waterways, loss of urban tree canopy, and intense flooding, the loss of habitat for wildlife, creating a growing list of endangered and threatened species in need of conservation assistance, destroying greenspace and agricultural land for highways, the creation of significant carbon emissions by commuters and residents living in much larger homes.
Phil Pothen, Environmental Program Manager for Environmental Defence, speaks during a rally opposing Bill 23 outside Premier Doug Ford’s office.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
A 2017 climate vulnerability assessment of the Region of Peel—which will be pressured to accept the largest portion of the PC’s 1.5 million new homes outside Toronto—found the region’s natural systems are already dangerously vulnerable to climate change. Without a shift in priorities to ensure the preservation of valuable greenspace and waterways, the effects of climate change will be felt more intensely, more often—think the 2013 Mississauga flood every few years. Biodiversity loss would also continue.
“The future of natural systems under climate change ultimately affects our future,” the study stated. “We must act now to increase the protection of natural systems so that ecosystem services are continually delivered, sustainable over the long-term and resilient to climate change.”
Bill 23 makes this all but impossible, as it will break the connection between Conservation Authorities and municipalities. With the power of these regulatory agencies stripped away, unimpeded suburban-style growth can spread outward into the already limited supply of greenspace and farmland remaining in Ontario.
The PCs argue urban expansion is necessary in order to accommodate the province’s growing population—expected to increase by over 2 million people by 2031. However, multiple experts have described this claim as blatantly false. Thousands of acres of land are currently available within Ontario’s existing urban boundaries and can easily accommodate growth over the next few decades without the need to destroy farmland or the Greenbelt.
“Bill 23 sets up developers to rule the roost, and municipalities are the fall guy,” Clair Malcolmson, Executive Director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, said.
The PCs are currently using this same blatantly misleading narrative to claim 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt are necessary for housing development.
“The bottom line is that these proposed changes would bring chaos to land use planning in Ontario,” reads a statement from “The Big Tent”, a coalition of environmental groups, experts and academics formed to push back against the government's developer-driven agenda. The statement was released prior to the passage of Bill 23. “The government claims its proposed actions would solve the housing crisis. But instead, the proposed changes will not enable affordable housing to be built where it is needed inside existing communities. The government is also eliminating key democratic processes and environmental protections to make it easier for developers to build what they want, where they want, and when they want, and forcing the rest of us to bear the financial, social and ecological costs.”
A long list of municipalities approved motions opposing the numerous changes under Bill 23—including Mississauga, Brampton, York, Aurora, Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan—stating the freezing or elimination of fees like development charges will lead to the loss of millions of dollars in revenue, which will need to be made up on the back of local homeowners through hefty property tax increases. According to the City of Brampton, it stands to lose approximately $440 million over the next ten years. The City of Mississauga estimates the changes will cost it $900 million over the next decade.
According to Mayor Bonnie Crombie this amounts to a cut of nearly 20 percent to the City’s 10-year capital plan.
“Without that funding, we cannot plan for preventative maintenance on our bridges, roads, sewers and so many other critical pieces of infrastructure that we rely on every single day – let alone plan for the construction of new infrastructure to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population,” she told The Pointer in an emailed statement. “The impact on budget deliberations will be harsh. We were already facing an unfriendly economic future for the next fiscal year, because as a city we are still managing a deficit from the pandemic, combined with the same supply chain and inflationary pressures that are causing pain in the private sector and for our residents. Bill 23 has added untenable pressure to the budgets of municipalities like Mississauga, and there is no guarantee that reduced development charges and parkland fees will contribute to additional affordable housing.”
She says this leaves the City with limited financial options to address the revenue shortfall, aside from a property tax increase between five and 10 percent, or a drastic reduction in capital spending on much-needed infrastructure projects.
“In short, Mississauga must be compensated for these losses. There is no good way for us to replace close to a billion dollars in revenues that have previously been set aside for our long-term planning. Without a steady and stable source of revenue like development charges and parkland levies generate, it is impossible for our Council to plan for the city of the future that I know our residents want,” she says. “I urge the provincial government and Minister Clark to consult with their stakeholders, including municipalities like Mississauga, so that we can work together to address the affordable housing crisis. This legislation has an admirable goal, but should not come at the expense of our current residents or hamstring our future plans.”
The Association of Municipalities of Ontario estimated the province-wide hit to towns and cities would cost taxpayers approximately $5.1 billion between now and 2031.
“All members of the Provincial Parliament will need to consider in whose interest they govern,” Colin Best, AMO president, stated in a submission to the PC government about Bill 23. “The province has offered no evidence that the radical elements of the bill will improve housing affordability… It is more likely that the bill will enhance the profitability of the development industry at the expense of taxpayers and the natural environment.”
NDP MPP Jessica Bell took a stronger stance following the Bill’s approval.
“The Ford government’s scheme has one very clear winner, and that is Doug Ford’s wealthy developer friends,” she stated in a press release. “Bill 23 will make Ford’s developer buddies even richer, while hurting Ontarians by making the housing crisis even worse.”
She continued: “Ford’s legislation jeopardizes environmentally sensitive land; it puts renters at greater risk of being evicted or having their rent jacked up; and it will see purpose-built affordable rental buildings torn down and replaced with luxury condos the average person cannot afford.”
The changes approved under Bill 23 will significantly increase the risks to many turtle species in Ontario classified as either endangered, threatened or at-risk as a result of wetland loss.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Thousands of residents across Ontario weathered torrential rains, snowstorms and the early arrival of winter to protest outside MPP offices over the Bill. The PC government has ignored public opinion throughout the rushed legislative process.
While the PCs made one small change to the legislation, which would have prohibited the City of Toronto from enforcing its own Green Standards on new developments, they have made no changes to the most maligned portions of the Bill. Some sections are still before the Environmental Registry Office for consultation—like the changes to the Ontario Heritage Act, along with other changes to the City of Toronto Act and the Planning Act—but it’s unclear what these consultations will mean now that the Bill has passed.
Protests across Ontario, attended by thousands of residents, highlighted the widespread disdain for the PC’s housing agenda.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Organizations are vowing to fight the legislation.
“Our region is full of strong and caring people, and we are creating a movement that will overcome these challenges to build a positive future together. No bill or undemocratic dealings such as this will stop that,” the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition declared. “A democracy is a tool of the people. We will continue to wield it. We will continue to build and unify for the long term. Most importantly, we will remember who led with the people in mind and those who were beholden to deep pockets.”
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