Ford’s Bill 23 is ‘ecological insanity’, implodes sustainable urban planning in unhinged give over to sprawl developers

The PC government has proposed unprecedented changes to how land use planning is done across Ontario. In an omnibus piece of legislation introduced last week, Premier Doug Ford is providing his largest gift to the development lobby that helped him land his job in the first place.

Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, creates an open season on critical ecosystems and habitats in Ontario, a fundamental shift in land use policy that will lead to the destruction of wetlands, woodlots and other critical habitat and effectively sets fire to the province’s carbon reduction targets.

The legislation mirrors what subdivision developers have been aggressively lobbying for—a Bill that paves the way, literally, for more land gobbling sprawl across Southern Ontario.

The move unravels two decades of work by previous governments, which culminated in the Places to Grow Act, passed 17 years ago by the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government. It confronted the sprawl-style growth that had pushed subdivisions across Southern Ontario, cementing our reliance on the car and devastating the environment by sending millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, which could have been avoided through more compact forms of urban design.

Places to Grow, which forced municipalities to eschew sprawl and adopt much more dense, transit-oriented planning, has been despised by the subdivision developers who made massive profits in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

Much of the remaining greenspace and agricultural land across the GTA has already been bought, assembled by subdivision builders who have supported the PCs. They have lobbied to have environmental hurdles and local smart growth policies cleared away, allowing them to build whatever they want.

Changes under the radical new Bill being forced through by the PCs with hardly any public input will make it easier to get development projects approved with less involvement from environmental and municipal bodies, which have been key parts of the application process to ensure local and public interests are protected.

“It's pretty much a catastrophic attack on planning that looks to blow up the system,” Tim Gray, Executive Director of Environmental Defence, said. “And that, of course, is gonna have devastating impacts on the environment, but also on the livability and sustainability of our city.”

The myriad legislative changes in the Bill are the fuel to power the PC government’s stated goal of building 1.5 million new homes by 2031. The Bill is being described as a complete rewrite of land use planning in Ontario.

The proposed changes include:

The Bill has been widely panned by environmental groups, conservation authorities and municipal stakeholders, with many pointing out that it will destroy critical regulations put in place to protect the environment, while doing very little to achieve the housing targets the PCs are using as the entire justification for this drastic shift.

“Many of the proposed amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act and the Planning Act in Bill 23 are concerning, as they signal a move away from environmental protection at a time when climate change impacts are being felt more at the local level,” writes the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) in a press release. AMO also notes it remains unclear how these regulatory changes will create more interconnected communities and that it will make it harder for municipalities to recover the costs of growth, “contrary to the widely accepted concept that growth should pay for growth”; and the elimination of the upper-tier municipalities from the planning process of the lower tier, could have significant implications for local infrastructure as municipalities approve projects the upper-tier is unable to service.

“While AMO would like to support the province’s housing objectives, it cannot support changes that largely place the burden of carrying the costs associated with development onto municipalities. AMO believes that the proposed changes may contradict the goal of building more housing in the long-term as it merely shifts the financial burden of growth-related infrastructure onto existing taxpayers,” the release states.

Bill 23 has left municipalities stunned, and organizations and advocates are scrambling to mobilize a defensive as the Bill is rammed through the Legislature by the powerful majority PC government. It passed Second Reading on October 31.

“Municipalities, conservation authorities, housing advocates, and those concerned about legal rights are just getting their legs under them on these massively destructive proposals,” Andrew McCammon, Executive Director of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, said. “The public sees through the naked assault on environmental safeguards, wetlands, agriculture, conservation lands, sound planning, and green development standards.”

In an effort to make more land available for development, Bill 23 makes changes to how wetlands are characterized.

In conjunction with Bill 23, a number of proposals have been sent to the Environmental Registry of Ontario. One of these is the potential creation of an “offset” system for developing in woodlands, wetlands and other significant wildlife habitat.

“The development of an ecological offsetting policy in Ontario would provide a tool for better land use decisions and help compensate for the loss of wetlands, woodlands, and other natural wildlife habitat in the province,” the proposed regulations read. “The result of an offsetting policy should be a net gain in natural heritage area and/or function.”

In practice, this would allow developers to build in wetlands or other sensitive nature areas as long as they are providing a “net gain” elsewhere, whether that is paying into a fund that supports projects doing work to conserve species at risk, or the “creation” of wetlands elsewhere. It’s a system that has been criticized heavily for being ineffective at preserving natural heritage.

“We call this ‘pay to slay’,” Gray said.

The Pointer has previously reported on how woefully inadequate these “pay to slay” schemes pushed by developers have been. They are effectively empty words, used to destroy sensitive lands, without replacing their critical ecological and environmental functions.

An example of this logic was seen in Caledon when soon-to-be former Councillor Jennifer Innis pointed to the rerouting of a protected stream as evidence to claim that a massive warehouse development skirting the supposedly protected Greenbelt would be an “ecological benefit”.

A similar principle is also proposed to be applied to portions of the Greenbelt. In proposed regulations added to the Environmental Registry on Friday, the PCs are planning to remove 7,400 acres of Greenbelt land and replace it with 9,400 acres of additional Greenbelt land elsewhere.

Under the Bill, the majority of wetlands in southern Ontario would no longer be eligible for any sort of protection. Currently, when attempting to determine if a wetland deserves protection, these natural features are evaluated on a scale between zero and 1,000. If a wetland scores over 600, it is considered provincially significant and is shielded from development. Bill 23 changes the evaluation criteria, making it harder for wetlands to tally enough points for protection. Among the changes, the presence of endangered species will no longer provide evaluation points to a wetland.

“That is kind of the definition of ecological insanity because you would think that a wetland that is occupied by the rarest and most at risk species that we have, would get a higher score,” Gray said.

The second change is in regard to the geographic positioning of wetlands. Often they are grouped, meaning there is a series of small ponds or other bodies of water that are amalgamated in a low lying area. Under current legislation, the scores of these groups would be added together as a wetland complex and if the entire complex scored over 600 they would be protected. Under Bill 23, each of these ponds or wetlands would be analyzed separately, effectively eliminating the concept of a wetland complex within the regulations. This will result in a large number of small wetlands that provide crucial habitat for wildlife, as well as natural functions that benefit cities, like flood protection and water filtration, from receiving protection, making them vulnerable to development.

Wetlands also serve as critical carbon sinks, inhaling large amounts of greenhouse gas and preventing it from being released into the atmosphere. Paving over wetlands eliminates places for water to go leading to catastrophes like the flood that devastated parts of Mississauga in 2013.

Along with taking a direct swipe at the critical ecosystems that remain in Ontario, the PC government is also dramatically diminishing the guardians tasked with preserving large portions of these natural features—conservation authorities.

The proposed changes have been described as a total assault on conservation authorities, which exist to protect wetland habitats, watersheds and help prevent flooding in communities within their geographic jurisdiction.

According to Conservation Ontario, the body that represents the 36 conservation authorities across the province, the core mandate of these entities is to “undertake watershed-based programs to protect people and property from flooding and other natural hazards, and to conserve natural resources for economic, social and environmental benefits”.

Bill 23 removes the ability of conservation authorities to work with municipalities on watershed planning, which includes making sure wetlands and wildlife habitats remain untouched and that people are protected from flooding events. The new regulations “gag” conservation authorities, Environmental Defence says, by not allowing them to share information with municipalities as part of the land use approvals process.

Conservation authorities will no longer be able to consider “pollution” or “conservation of land” as a justification when deciding whether to allow development.

“The prohibition on conservation authorities to do that, I think, is a prelude to actually just getting rid of them completely,” Gray said.

This is exactly what the private sector wants: the elimination of regulations and oversight so developers can control how land is used across Ontario.

The proposed change has been heavily criticized by Mike Schreiner, Leader of the Green Party of Ontario.

“It gives the minister the ability to issue a development permit over a science based concern of conservation authorities,” Schreiner said.

Conservation authorities are the second largest owner of lands in the province. Bill 23 will force them to identify the lands they own that would be suitable for development. It will then be decided which of these lands will be sold off to developers. There appears to be no consideration for the environmental impacts of this decision.

“We anticipate that these changes, if approved, would result in the identification of additional lands that could be used to support Ontario’s need for more housing, while streamlining administrative land disposition and severance processes, potentially reducing conservation authority operating expenses and the associated municipal levy,” the proposed regulations state. “They would also make it easier and cheaper for conservation authorities to dispose of excess lands that may be suitable for housing or other types of development.”

Several conservation authorities have spoken out against the Bill, urging the government to press pause and consider the potential consequences.

“We will do our part to help the Province meet its goal of building 1.5 million homes in Ontario over the next ten years. We think your stated outcomes are important but are concerned that your proposed legislative changes may have unintentional, negative consequences,” writes the board of Conservation Halton in a letter to the Province. “Rather than creating the conditions for efficient housing development, these changes may jeopardize the Province’s stated goals by increasing risks to life and property for Ontario residents.”

This is not the first time Ford and his PC government have taken a sledge hammer to the crucial mandate of conservation authorities.

In December 2020, the PCs rammed through Bill 229 and the controversial Schedule 6, which made a number of changes to the Conservation Authorities Act, many of which never received any public consultation. It allows developers to make an appeal directly to the Province should a conservation authority deny an application to build in a risky area. Under Schedule 6, Queen’s Park can issue a veto to force a conservation authority to issue a building permit, even if the science says the results could be catastrophic.

These legislative changes put many cities at risk of flooding events, which ironically is the exact reason conservation authorities were created in the first place. In 1946, under the PC government at the time, they were created to address concerns about habitat and watershed degradation as a result of rapid urban development. When Hurricane Hazel washed away homes built in floodplains and resulted in the deaths of 81 Ontario residents in 1954, the province intensified the mandate of conservation authorities to protect communities and watersheds from future calamities.

Limiting their ability to continue to do so goes against established science, responsible and sustainable urban planning practices and ignores the reality that storms like Hurricane Hazel will become more common in the years ahead if the impacts of climate change are not mitigated.

This is already being seen. The radical changes proposed by the PCs will accelerate these impacts by dooming Ontario to a future of more urban sprawl and car-dependent communities.

In the 1950s development changed. As owning a car became more popular, families moved out of dense urban areas into suburban homes. Huge swaths of manicured lawns and large single family homes were staples of the middle class. Car-centric communities became the norm with residents having to travel into cities for work, shopping and other necessities. It’s a development philosophy that has been widely criticized for causing many of the issues—traffic congestion, air quality concerns, flooding—faced by large urban regions like the GTA. It’s the exact development style the PCs are now trying to force onto municipalities in Ontario, despite the clear recommendations from international panels that have stressed local governments need to shift to more dense, sustainable forms of development in order to be successful at mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Reports from international bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have said that the way we plan our cities must be done with the intention of mitigating the impacts of climate change. Essentially, urban sprawl is out and dense urban living is in.

However, if Bill 23 is passed, much of the power to approve plans that shift away from urban sprawl will be taken away from municipalities. Regions will lose all planning authority, meaning these Official Plans will cease to exist. Gray said it is not clear what would happen to the documents that have been created over the last three to four years—with millions of taxpayer dollars—and if municipalities would have to start from a blank slate.

“Each individual community then is free to try and add as much new farmland or natural areas and forests to their urban boundaries, or to their communities as they can, and approve massive new subdivisions,” Gray said.

The proposed changes may not only impact future planning, but reverse some of the good work that has been done by municipalities in southern Ontario. Halton Region and Waterloo Region both approved Official Plans that contained growth within the current urban boundaries. These two regions are celebrated by sustainable activists for the decision to build denser communities rather than creating more sprawl.

It’s not not clear how these proposed regulations, if approved, would impact the Region of Peel’s decision to expand its urban boundary by 11,000 acres. It appears any decisions around the use of these lands would now fall to Brampton and Caledon, not council members around the regional table.

According to Gray, there is enough land already zoned for development in cities across the province to support growth to 2040. But what needs to happen is the development of the types of housing that people want to live in. Gray refers to this as the “missing middle”: townhouses and small apartment buildings that were common in developments in the 1920s and 1930s.

“We need homes inside our existing cities. A lot of our individual municipalities are trying to do that,” he said.

“And the provincial government working in conjunction with sprawl development is really trying to stop that and reverse that trend and force people to sprawl and it's not affordable and it's not ecologically sustainable.”

There are small bright spots in Bill 23: allowing for the construction of triplexes on any property; the exemption of affordable housing projects from development charges and other fees, and a focus on density near major transit areas. Building around transit corridors allows for more contained communities that do not depend on individual vehicles, with transit options and active transportation as alternatives. This limits greenhouse gas emissions by getting cars off the road and also makes communities more accessible for low income families.

Schreiner said many of these small progressive policies just don’t go far enough. He said he has been arguing that fourplexes and walk-up apartments should be allowed to provide housing in the missing middle. This is the kind of dense development that would allow regions to remain within their existing urban boundary.

“You can get past the false choice between tall and sprawl,” Schreiner said.

He quoted a study from the Sustainable Prosperity Institute that found the annual cost for a municipality to maintain a suburban home in a sprawl setting is just under $3,500. In contrast, the annual cost to the municipality, which also gets far more tax revenue from density, is $1,416 per household in a more dense urban area.

The new Bill could financially cripple the cities and towns where sprawl will be built. Developers, meanwhile, will profit handsomely.

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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