Ford's plans worry Niagara conservation authority

The chief administrator of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority fears agencies like hers may lose the ability to protect vulnerable environments if the province passes a new bill to help developers build houses faster.

"It is almost like the proposed changes simply take conservation out of the conservation authorities," Chandra Sharma said in an interview.

Conservation authorities act as regulatory advisers for municipalities by assessing the environmental impact of development proposals.

"We've been collectively doing it for 70 years," she said.

"Many small municipalities do not have the capacity and resources to do it themselves," she added.

Bill 23, also known as the More Homes Built Faster Act, will limit their ability to advise towns on threats to the environment and also will amalgamate the province’s 36 conservation authorities into one.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Coun. Sandra O’Connor is “very concerned with the conservation authorities” and their reduced capacity to oversee the environmental impact of development.

Premier Doug Ford's provincial government tabled the bill Oct. 25.

It aims to increase density and affordability by cutting through bureaucratic red tape and making it easier for developers to build more homes.

The Ontario Association of Architects estimates the province loses anywhere between $300 million and $900 million every year because of project delays.

“The housing supply shortage affects all Ontarians,” Steve Clark, the minister of municipal affairs and housing, said in the province’s news release.

The legislation follows on the back of a series of new bills designed to help the Progressive Conservative government meet its goal getting 1.5 million homes built in 10 years.

Sharma is especially concerned by the proposed changes to the wetland evaluation system.

One of the proposed changes will exclude a subclass of wetland from the definition.

The excluded subclass is called a wetland complex, which is a stretch of swamp-like territory broken up by other land formations, like uplands or lakes.

While a wetland complex is not contiguous, it functions like a single ecosystem.

Sharma points out that about 135 of Niagara Peninsula's nearly 170 wetlands are complexes and the changed definition may inadvertently strip them of their protections.

Coun. Gary Burroughs said he is more concerned about protecting agricultural land.

“We've got such specialized agricultural land and it is protected and it's actually saved our town to this point. If it was cancelled, that would be devastating,” he said

Burroughs suggested rather than build more homes, the best solution to Ontario's housing shortage is to convert single-family homes into multi-dwelling units.

Households with one or two people could, "instead of moving to a smaller place, allow someone to live in their place," he said.

Property owners can already modify their properties to accommodate additional living units but under the new legislation those modifications can be implemented regardless of municipal bylaws.

This would help to increase density in urban areas "with minimal impact on existing neighbourhoods," the bill says.

Lord Mayor-elect Gary Zalepa calls the new legislation “strategically a smart idea.”

According to Ontario's webpage on the the legislation, Bill 23 could help fill the “missing middle,” a type of home more attainable to middle-class families and first time buyers.

These include terrace homes, condominiums, semi-detached houses and infill houses.

Chuck McShane, CEO of the Niagara Home Builders Association, said the new legislation is a step in the right direction as it will help to build more affordable options for youth.

“Our youth cannot afford to live here,” he said.

“We have literally stifled any development that might achieve affordability with our planning policies and nimbyism,” he added.

McShane says the problem isn’t unique to Niagara-on-the Lake though.

McShane is confident there’s a market for attainable houses in NOTL, despite the town having a median income of $98,000 a year and a median age of almost 57.

He explained that not only would the town’s youth be interested in attainable options but seniors looking to downsize would be as well.

The new act raises questions over heritage protections like those in the Old Town.

“We’re also proposing a series of updates to balance preserving Ontario’s history and heritage with the need to build more homes,” reads the government’s webpage on the new legislation.

Neither Zalepa nor McShane are concerned for Bill 23's effect on heritage districts.

Burroughs pointed out the town still has the right to choose where it meets its developmental growth requirements, but his concerns were not zero.

"Within six months. I'm hoping this new council will have a new zoning bylaw that deals with contextual zoning," Burroughs said.

Evan Loree, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report