Conservation Ontario fears push for new housing may create environmental risks


As Bill 23 moves quickly through the Ontario Legislature before many new municipal governments have even convened, questions are circling around whether the push to build more affordable housing will come with an environmental cost.

The Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) has stated that many proposed amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act and the Planning Act in Bill 23 are “concerning,” and could “undermine the collaborative and productive changes” put forward by the Ministry-led Conservation Authority Working Group over the past two years for the province’s 36 conservation authorities.

“At first glance, they seem to result in negative consequences (i.e., increased flooding, liability), at a time when the impacts of climate change are increasingly prevalent,” AMO wrote in a statement on Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022. 

Eco-action group Environmental Defence issued a statement on Bill 23’s proposals that called it “environmentally catastrophic rural sprawl,” suggesting that Ontario has more than enough room in existing neighbourhoods and lands already designated for development to address the ongoing housing crisis.

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Conservation Ontario is also sounding the alarm over the bill’s ability to prevent municipalities from entering into agreements with conservation authorities to review planning applications on their behalf, as municipalities largely leave it to conservation authorities to refuse permits and appeal land use decisions.

Angela Coleman, general manager of Conservation Ontario, fears proposed exemptions from natural hazard permits for select municipalities where Planning Act approvals are in place, and the removal of “conservation of lands” and “pollution” as considerations for permits.

Ultimately, concern exists that the province’s new legislation could possibly allow development to tap into conservation lands to support growth in housing. This is despite the fact that these areas are often located in floodplains and help to protect against flooding and erosion, and the fact that there has been renewed efforts from conservation authorities to streamline and speed up review and approval processes for plan applications and permits.

“At the same time, we need to make sure mechanisms are still in place to ensure that we balance growth with a healthy environment,” Coleman announced in a statement, adding that conservation authorities are not a barrier to growth.

Conservation authorities own approximately 147,000 hectares of land, made up of important natural systems and biodiversity such as wetlands, forests, moraines, and ecologically sensitive lands with clear functions and purposes.

Recently, a study from the University of Waterloo showed how southern Ontario’s wetlands could be providing some $4.2 billion worth of sediment filtration and phosphorus removal every year.

Coleman points out that municipalities need to continue to be able to enter into agreements with conservation authorities for advisory services and conservation authorities need to retain responsibility for natural hazard approvals.

“The plan review process by conservation authorities ensures the protection of the watershed-based approach and enables the connections to be made between flood control, wetlands, and other green infrastructure or natural cover, thus ensuring safe development,” said Coleman.

Another concern from an environmental perspective is Bill 23’s proposal to freeze conservation authority development fees. Coleman’s response to the move was to affirm that “development needs to pay for development.”

In addition to many new municipal councils in Ontario since the recent election, there are also many new conservation authority board appointments and transitions underway.

The bill is widely expected to pass quickly through the Legislature; however, it is still currently open for public consultation, including three public hearings being held in Brampton, Markham and Toronto this month.

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