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Ontario forming working group to guide conservation authorities despite outcry

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The Ontario government has tasked a new working group with developing regulations that would lead the province’s 36 conservation authorities to focus and deliver on core mandates like flood protection and community involvement. However, Conservation Ontario has stated that some changes would limit its ability to protect people, infrastructure and the environment.

The working group follows legislative amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act introduced through Bill 229 in December, which included addressing the mandates of conservation authorities as part of a broader COVID-19 recovery package.

Conservation authorities are typically defined as local management agencies that deliver services and programs to protect water and other natural resources.

Of particular concern to Conservation Ontario is the inclusion of Minister’s Zoning Orders in the recent amendments. Conservation Ontario says this will allow the minister to force a conservation authority to issue a permit “… even if it goes against their provincially-delegated responsibility to protect people, infrastructure and the environment.”

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The new law also prevents conservation authorities from making appeals to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, Conservation Ontario warned.

“The Budget Bill is all about financial recovery from pandemic conditions and this could have easily been accomplished in ways that didn’t sacrifice Ontario’s environment and our unique watershed approach,” said Kim Gavine, general manager of Conservation Ontario, the agency which represents conservation authorities. “A more proactive approach may have been to use this bill to support the development of a stream of new, greener economic activities that would boost the economy and help to build environmental resilience, not break it down,” Gavine suggested.

While the working group’s experts still need to be established in the coming weeks, the recent amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act reveal some of the tasks ahead. For instance, Bill 229 requires that 70% of members appointed to a conservation authority by a participating municipality be members of the local council.

“Partnerships and collaboration are critical to ensure that conservation authorities can continue making watershed-based resource management decisions in the interest of the environment, health and safety,” said Conservation Halton President and CEO Hassaan Basit, in a statement to media.

Notably, the recent amendments shift certain authorities towards the Ministry of Natural Resources. For instance, the minister could take certain actions after reviewing a report on an investigation into an authority’s operations. The minister could also review a conservation authority decision regarding issued or refused permits.

Additionally, Bill 229 will enable officers appointed by conservation authorities to issue stop work orders, “defined in a way that is consistent with entry powers without warrants,” the legislation states. “This will help ensure conservation authorities have effective enforcement tools in place to stop significant threats and impacts to the environment,” states The Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act, 2020.

Another amendment introduced in the bill allows conservation authorities to appeal or be party to an appeal as a public body, under certain provisions of the Planning Act, in the context of prescribed natural hazards matters. 

Other new regulations are expected to address the agreements between municipalities and conservation authorities and the transition period associated with non-mandatory programs and services.

New regulations will also focus on how local members of the community can participate in their conservation authorities through community advisory boards.

The Ontario government recently announced a $30 million investment in a new Wetlands Conservation Partner Program to help conservation organizations create and restore wetlands in priority areas across the province.

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