Thanks to PC policies Peel’s climate fight stuck between a rock & a hard place
Tony Iacobelli has made a name for himself among Ontario’s tight-knit sphere of environmental planners and experts. The ecologist and micro-climatologist started his career working in the not-for-profit sector on the World Wildlife Fund’s campaign to help endangered species. As he continued his work, he shifted his approach to conservation, forest management and sustainable communities, eventually becoming a registered environmental planner.
He spent nearly 15 years working in the municipal sector, first in the City of Vaughan as an environmental planner then becoming the booming municipality’s manager of environmental sustainability in 2015. He then moved on to the City of Markham to become its manager of natural heritage. Whether it was working on policies to protect longstanding greenspaces and other organic features, the creation of large-scale environmental master plans, or working to set achievable emission targets for these municipalities, Iacobelli has spent much of his career focused on making the places in which we live climate resilient. He has now set his sights on the Region of Peel.
He was recently hired as the executive director of the Centre for Community Energy Transformation (CCET), a nonprofit organization working alongside the cities of Brampton and Mississauga, and the Town of Caledon, to help with the transition to a low carbon future. The organization receives a large portion of its base funding from Brampton — and some from Mississauga — and is working closely with Peel’s second largest city to move toward a more sustainable future.
“It's really interesting to have this arm's-length, not-for-profit, working with the municipality, to try to scale up climate action in the community and have this strong community focus,” he said. “This is such an interesting structure. Getting this to work can really unlock a lot of climate action outside of Peel Region, as well, in terms of how municipalities can work with not-for-profits.”
For the City of Brampton, the CCET is a big opportunity to improve its lacklustre performance on sustainability and environmental stewardship.
Brampton has been shaped over the past four decades by developer-driven planning that made car the king, in a sprawling collection of subdivisions approved by a series of councils going back to the late ‘70s that handed over control of the city’s future to builders.
Leadership on environmental issues has been largely absent, as development after development was approved, with annual budgets focussed more on paying for massive residential growth, not on how that growth should be managed in a sustainable way.
City Hall has a poor record of following through on its environmental goals, often only paying lip service to the climate crisis while doing very little in the way of action. Since the election of Mayor Patrick Brown in 2018, spending on environmental initiatives and the City’s master plans associated with sustainability and natural heritage has come to a screeching halt through successive budgets as he has vowed to curtail spending.
But Iacobelli is hopeful the CCET can trigger real changes, pointing to two major initiatives undertaken by the CCET to help the City plan and implement energy retrofits into existing buildings while preparing for potential district energy projects.
“There's a strong emphasis on engagement and outreach and working with the community and that will be threaded through all the programs,” he said. “I really want to make sure this succeeds.”
While the City of Brampton has many valuable greenspaces, including the Etobicoke Creek watershed which runs through the downtown core, the money invested to protect it and other greenspaces has dried up in recent years.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer files)
But just as Brampton tries to right some of its wrongs—moves that could pay dividends for the entire region—the PC government is increasingly throwing up barriers for municipalities looking to implement policies to fight climate change and its costly impacts.
Bill 97, or the Helping Homeowners, Protecting Tenants Act (introduced at the beginning of April) is a supplemental piece of legislation to the PC’s highly controversial Bill 23, both of which are meant to contribute to the PC goal of building 1.5 million homes by 2031. The Hazel McCallion Act received Royal assent at the beginning of this month and set the gears in motion to dissolve the Region of Peel by 2025. Both are creating significant barriers to the necessary climate work that is ongoing at the municipal level.
Bill 97, the newest change to development legislation pushed through by the PCs, will make it easier for developers and the government to sidestep local planning policies and force development against the wishes of municipalities and their communities. The Bill also eliminates climate change almost entirely from the provincial planning statement, giving the interconnected global issue its own section of significantly reduced policies, while erasing all connections between climate change and infrastructure development. It means development projects are not required to give significant weight to the climate impacts of the growth they are triggering, meaning less sustainable options can be pursued, despite the climate goals and wishes of municipalities.
In their efforts to fast-track and streamline development project timelines, the provincial government is repeatedly showing it favours immediate growth, often in sprawling subdivisions, over sustainable development. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) noted the problematic approach of the Province to boost housing supply in previously untouched areas, in contrast to the previous Growth Plan and Provincial Policy Statement which “direct(ed) growth and intensification to areas with infrastructure, transit and community amenities, and away from environmentally and agriculturally important lands.”
The PCs claim the purpose of the Bill is to expedite housing development projects, but advocates point out it weakens policies implemented to guide development in a sustainable way into areas that can handle growth with infrastructure already available for new residents including roads, schools, hospitals and police resources needed to service them.
Ford has gone so far as overriding municipalities such as Hamilton, which had refused to expand its urban boundary to accommodate future growth, providing evidence that new residents could easily be housed by creating more density or even brand new detached housing in areas within the existing urban boundary.
Developers that have already bought up vast tracts of land outside urban boundaries, including in the Greenbelt, have fought against smart growth policies introduced by the Liberals that demanded dense housing. Ford has rewarded their support by forcing Peel and other municipalities to expand their existing boundaries to include lands where the developers have already bought up properties to build more sprawl, redirecting population growth away from previously planned urban corridors supported by transit, to far flung corners of suburban towns and cities without any surrounding infrastructure.
Municipalities with more forward thinking green leaders, like Mississauga, are handcuffed when trying to push back with financial arguments that show sprawl cripples the finances of City Hall. Municipal Environmental Assessments and other sustainable requirements for developments within their borders can now easily be overruled by a Minister’s Zoning Order (MZO) or an appeal to the developer-friendly Ontario Land Tribunal (OLT). Or by a head of council who now has strong mayor powers and only needs one-third of the council vote to overrule more progressive, green local elected officials.
It all leaves municipalities performing a delicate balancing act to ensure they can achieve growth targets without the policies and legislative support to make growth as sustainable as possible, while also trying to meet critical emissions reduction targets.
A great deal of power is now in the hands of developers. Once they buy a property, they can effectively do whatever they want on it.
By eliminating intensification targets within cities—a tool used in Ontario for years to limit urban sprawl and ensure a large proportion of new growth occurred within existing built-up boundaries—Bill 97 clears the way for developers to maximize profits by gobbling up less expensive greenfield lands or farmland (as opposed to brownfields which may require expensive remediation), leaving municipalities to accommodate sprawling developments. Valuable food-bearing soil or habitat for endangered species, which under the previous provincial planning policy, known as Places to Grow, were protected (as more density was legislated instead of sprawl), is now under threat under the PC government. Previously approved climate plans that relied on dense, smart growth that supports public transit and active transportation, have been forsaken. Many developers that had already assembled properties for sprawl-style growth on previously undeveloped land, see sustainability measures, such as density and transit investments as policies that compete with the large profits they make from building larger homes in subdivisions supported by local thoroughfares and highways. This model of growth is not conducive to creating sustainable, compact communities, known as 15-minute communities or complete communities, serviced by transit and active transportation, the type of growth planners like Iacobelli support.
Bill 97 also builds upon changes made under Bill 23 that eliminate the requirement for developers to pay a slew of development charges (DCs). Municipalities say this will lead to a serious revenue shortfall, preventing them from having money to build necessary infrastructure. The cut to DCs means if cities and towns want to build green infrastructure, they will be required to fund much of it themselves (by taxpayers) from budgets that are already cash-strapped due to limited revenue options.
The City of Mississauga has been praised for its efforts to convert its public bus fleet from diesel to hybrid electric.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer files)
A staff report presented to Mississauga council in November determined the City can expect to lose an estimated $815 million to $885 million in development charges for infrastructure over the next decade. Staff also estimated that the City’s infrastructure gap — which represents the total value of upgrades, repairs or replacements to existing infrastructure that are required, but have no funding source — could sit between $400 and $450 million within the next 10 years.
“The impact on us is…the word ‘devastating’ comes to mind, that without compensation, this Bill will gut our capital budget or require that we increase our tax rates substantially,” former City manager and CAO Paul Mitcham said at the November meeting.
Similarly, the City of Brampton estimated that based on the loss of revenue from development charges, cash-in-lieu of parkland and additional infrastructure hits, it can expect to lose approximately $440 million. To service the additional required infrastructure for the 113,000 homes Brampton is expected to build, the City estimated an additional $2 billion would be required, or $200 million annually.
This is a huge blow to municipalities already struggling to maintain sustainable infrastructure, and will only be faced with more responsibility once the Region of Peel is dissolved in 2025.
One example of how this could hamper municipalities is with Mississauga’s parkland strategy released in June 2022. The strategy recognized the importance of greenspace in the city, while concluding that the city is increasingly becoming less green and more parks are required.
The loss of DC revenue and changes to parkland cash-in-lieu policies, which reduce the amount of land developers must dedicate to parks within their proposals, will make it significantly more difficult for the City to establish greenspaces for its growing population.
The dissolution of the Region of Peel through the Hazel McCallion Act has the potential to create even more problems.
While the announcement that Peel Region would be dissolved as of 2025 was a welcoming one for Mississauga’s Mayor Crombie who has been championing an independent Mississauga for years, each city will now be faced with greater responsibilities.
As an upper tier municipality, the Region of Peel is responsible for a myriad of services including arterial roads, policing, sewer and water systems, waste disposal, region-wide land use planning and development, and health and social services. Once the Region is dissolved, Brampton and Mississauga could be responsible for many of these services individually for their respective municipalities. The eventual break-up and distribution of services will be determined by a transition panel currently being created by the PC government.
For municipalities that are already hard-pressed for funding, it could be a huge blow to their bottom lines to have to undertake a wealth of initiatives that were previously covered by the Region. It’s unclear what kind of funding formulas would be implemented by the provincial government after dissolution, but the PCs have vowed there would be no service disruption. However, it’s hard not to see how this complex, unprecedented process of breaking up an upper-tier municipality could not trigger delays in critical services and projects. At the very least, critical initiatives could face delays as regional projects are downloaded to respective municipalities, staff are hired, teams are created and tasks are delegated to continue the vital work.
The other question that arises is staffing resources. Currently the Region of Peel has the Office of Climate Change and Energy Management (OCCEM) which develops, implements and reports on the Region Climate Change Master Plan. While the CCMP also intersects with a variety of other sectors, there are 17 staff that work directly in the OCCEM including a director, climate change strategy staff, climate change implementation staff and energy planning and procurement staff.
“Staff in the OCCEM provide strategic guidance, technical expertise and secure external funding to support climate change priorities that are connected to strategic plans or opportunities led by other divisions in the Peel Region, including Public Health, Enterprise Asset Management, Waste, Transportation, Water/Wastewater, and Fleet Operations,” a spokesperson for the Region told The Pointer in an email statement. “Staff in the OCCEM also work collaboratively with the local municipalities and conservation authorities on key initiatives that will accelerate and scale the climate emergency response in the community.”
It is currently unknown what will happen to these regional staff when Peel’s government is dissolved in 2025 (Mississauga Councillor Carolyn Parrish successfully brought forward a motion to ensure current employees at the Region are given every opportunity to retain their job once all services and assets are divided or shared between the existing lower tier municipalities). The assumption is that they will be dispersed between the independent municipalities, but the province has not finalized this decision and the Region was unwilling to comment on the matter. Mississauga Council unanimously passed a motion asking for the province to expeditiously create the transition board to ease the concerns of regional staff regarding what will happen to their jobs once the Region is dissolved.
In the meantime, Brampton and Mississauga both have their own climate change staff, but the question is whether those staffing resources will be sufficient to handle the wealth of new responsibilities.
A spokesperson for the City of Mississauga told The Pointer it has an environment team that works on the Living Green Master Plan in conjunction with staff from other departments. The spokesperson did not mention how many staff are on the team.
“The question about climate change resourcing is a complex one to answer since the CCAP is a city-wide plan with many staff working towards it,” the City spokesperson said. “There are also dozens of other plans that staff are also leading with respect to active transportation, energy management and energy efficiency, transit, storm water, parks and forestry to name just a few – all of which are helping to address the climate imperative.”
The City of Brampton did not respond to The Pointer’s questions about any staff who deal with climate change and environment planning. It’s unclear if, under Brown, any hiring has been done to adopt the type of environmental policies and planning other municipalities have moved toward. While he has been criticized for creating a bloated staff for his own office and in other departments to support his own political ambitions, Brown has failed to expand the budget for key urban initiatives that have largely been ignored since his election in 2018.
Potential obstacles at the provincial level could not come at a worse time for Peel or Ontario.
Peel is warming at twice the rate of the global average and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC) has warned that residents can expect to experience an increase in seasonal temperatures, precipitation and the number of extreme heat days in the years to come.
If Ontario wants to win its climate fight, it must be won in the Region of Peel. The large population and dense transportation networks that converge in the region dictate that should Ontario wish to achieve its emission reduction targets, a large percentage of those emissions must be cut in Peel, which will take on more population growth over the next three decades than any other region in the province including Toronto.
The wildfire smoke that blanketed large parts of Ontario last week was a stark reminder that the impacts of climate change are no longer a future threat.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer files)
The Region is also home to Ontario’s third and fourth largest cities — Mississauga and Brampton. In 2021, the three municipalities that make up the Region of Peel — including Caledon — produced just over 14 percent of Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions, while housing just over 10 percent of the province’s population. If the climate fight is lost here, the emissions released will have a ripple effect across the country.
Brampton is already behind when it comes to emissions targets. Council committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 2016 levels by 2050. This is far less than the targets pushed for on the national and international level.
Mississauga community activist, Rahul Mehta, previously told The Pointer he wouldn’t be surprised if Brampton weakens its target even more following its divorce from Mississauga and the Region of Peel.
“I do expect Caledon and Brampton to weaken their plans, because they don't have as much money,” he said.
Removing the Region of Peel and its overarching climate change targets from the equation means the only government to hold municipalities accountable is the province, and with the PCs in power, policies that move in the opposite direction are likely to continue. Since forming the government in 2018, they have eliminated subsidies for electric and hybrid vehicles, cancelled EV charging projects, terminated clean energy projects, scrapped net-zero new-home construction policies while pushing through 400-series highway projects and legislation to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031, many of which will be built in sprawling, land gobbling subdivisions including some in the previously protected Greenbelt.
Ford’s legislation and his granting of strong mayor powers to 28 municipalities is aimed at forcing his sprawl-style housing plan into reality. To get his 1.5 million homes built in less than eight years, he is even willing to destroy the most basic of democratic norms—majority rule. With the strong mayor powers, councils can approve motions that support Ford’s initiatives with only one-third support. He is banking on mayors just like Patrick Brown, who has controlled at least four other members of council since early in his first term. Brown, for example, has aggressively lobbied for the environmentally destructive Highway 413 project, disregarding the lip service he paid to environmental goals (Brown voted in favour of declaring a climate emergency while simultaneously pushing the highway). Now, to achieve Ford’s agenda, including the construction of subdivisions in the Greenbelt, Brown will only need the support of one-third of council to do so.
The evidence suggests Doug Ford and his PC government has little interest in winning the climate fight. Since being elected premier he has also expanded the use of natural gas; forged ahead with controversial plans for Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass which will destroy forests, wetlands, waterways and the habitat for numerous endangered and threatened species; while issuing dozens of Minister's Zoning Orders (MZO) for industrial and residential developments, many of which have been located on sensitive greenspaces or wetlands, places crucial to the climate fight as carbon sinks and guardians of biodiversity.
Despite working under a PC government that is acting contrary to climate mitigation efforts, many municipalities are trying to keep up the fight.
“Climate change is an issue that can no longer be ignored, denied or pushed aside — it must be made a top priority. Mississauga is proud of what we have already accomplished to be part of the climate solution. We consider ourselves climate leaders,” Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie wrote in the opening to the city’s Climate Change Master Plan in 2019. “With that said, we know that more needs to be done. As we look towards building Mississauga’s future, we know we need to take a bold stance on climate.”
Since formally entering the race to become the Ontario Liberal Party’s next leader, Crombie has stepped up her criticism of Ford’s destructive environmental record.
The City of Mississauga has made waves across the Region for its actions toward sustainability including the work to transform its bus fleet to hybrid electric, the addition of trails and walkways to encourage active transportation, demands to the federal government to renew its investment into freshwater protection plans, and the reaffirmation of the City’s commitment to climate action following a delegation from a prominent youth climate action group.
With the help of Iacobelli and the Centre for Community Energy Transformation (CCET), Brampton and Mississauga may be able to work with the independent non- profit on engagement and other initiatives.
But even if the CCET is able to support Mississauga in its green efforts and reinvigorate Brampton’s desire to support more sustainable development (regardless of Brown’s conservative political aspirations), the question is, will it matter as long as Doug Ford and his PCs continue to strip municipalities of their own power over smart planning and other environmental initiatives?
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