Stephens: Conservation authorities ‘need to be at the table’ in changes to planning, development regulations

FORMOSA – Bill 23 has been discussed extensively at local municipal council meetings and at the county level. The long-term effect at this point is largely unknown. However, its impact on the province’s conservation authorities promises to be profound.

Jennifer Stephens, general manager of Saugeen Conservation, presented an update on Bill 23 at the Dec. 15 meeting of the board of directors. The focus of her presentation was that conservation authorities want to be at the table, along with municipalities and the province, in achieving a “calculated approach to development... that respects the environment.”

That can best be achieved through the Conservation Authorities Working Group, she said.

Bill 23, More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022, recently received royal assent. As described in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario website’s explanatory notes, the bill’s Schedule 2, Conservation Authorities Act, “repeals and re-enacts subsections... of the Conservation Authorities Act” regarding disposition of lands. The act authorizes the minister to direct an authority not to change the fees it charges for a specified period of time. The act is amended to “require consideration of the effects on the control of unstable soil or bedrock” instead of consideration of several factors, including pollution control and conservation of land.

Stephens said in her report that the province has committed to building 1.5 million homes over the next 10 years, and introduced Bill 23 on Oct. 25, which includes several “legislative and regulatory changes affecting conservation authorities.” The purpose of the bill is to support “faster and less costly approvals, streamline CA processes, and help make suitable land housing available in a timely manner.”

Stephens said in her report to the directors that while “CAs want to do their part to help the province meet its goal… some changes (in Bill 23) will place new responsibilities on municipalities… that may lead to inefficiencies, uncertainties, and delays in the development review process; weaken the ability of conservation authorities to continue protecting people and property from natural hazards; and reduce critical natural infrastructure like wetlands that reduce flooding and protect waters in our lakes and rivers.”

She told the directors that under the act, a conservation authority cannot comment on conservation and environmental matters, i.e. “natural heritage,” just on “natural hazards” – flooding and erosion.

In response to a question from director Bud Halpin, Stephens said, “We would not be able to comment on natural heritage (even if the municipality asks for such comments). She went on to say that Conservation Ontario is “looking for ways we can continue to support our municipalities… right now we’re looking at natural hazards.” She pointed out that “wetlands are natural heritage but also natural hazard.”

Stephens said in a later interview that planning involves far more than just flooding and erosion, and that allowing development in “unsuitable locations puts people and property at risk.”

She further said that “we’re the experts,” as designated by the province, and municipalities depend on that expertise.

An element that is of concern to Saugeen Conservation is the fact the ministry is empowered to freeze conservation authority fees. At present, Saugeen Conservation is undertaking a review of its fees through use of a consultant, whose report will not be presented until the new year; fees may need to be adjusted according to what’s in the report. The ministry will be made cognizant of the situation, said Stephens.

Another element of great concern to all conservation authorities is a clause in the bill requiring that conservation lands be made available for housing development. Stephens said this has resulted in a “letter campaign” from conservation authorities.

She told the board the Credit Valley Conservation Authority has just requested a pause on Bill 23 and reconvening of the Conservation Authorities Working Group “to address concerns of conservation authorities and municipalities.”

Barbara Dobreen, board vice-chair, who chaired the Dec. 15 meeting, commented, “We all have a lot of questions but I’m not sure there are answers.”

One director, Mike Niesen of South Bruce, commented that he thinks that’s been “the government’s plan all along… let’s build on those places.”

Stephens responded by saying, “I can’t even try to say what the province is thinking.” She commented on the requirement “that conservation authorities identify lands suitable for development” by saying that those lands were donated or purchased for a purpose such as protecting drinking water.

Halpin questioned why “anyone would want to donate land to us” under the circumstances, calling the province’s plan “very short-sighted.”

Dobreen noted it applied more to the GTA greenbelt land for expansion, adding, “We’re all wondering about Bill 23.”

In response to a comment from Halpin, Stephens said there are other organizations to which people may donate land for conservation purposes.

“There are land trusts, Nature Conservancy of Ontario and Ducks Unlimited,” she said, adding they are not subject to the same requirements as conservation authorities. Conservation authorities are “the second largest land owner in Ontario,” she said.

Director Peter Whitten said, “We need to pay attention (to what’s happening) to the GTA.” He warned of “precedents that could affect us.”

In her report, Stephens stated, “Ontario’s conservation authorities have a valuable review and commenting role in the development process to ensure public safety and property protection. Working with our municipal partners, we use a variety of tools present in the Conservation Authorities Act and Planning Act to ensure that our communities are well planned, desirable places to live with resilient natural systems that will support communities into the future.”

She stressed that member municipalities benefit from the local conservation authority’s expertise.

“It’s vital that conservation authorities retain these responsibilities, where requested by municipalities, to maintain a watershed-based approach where we make connections between flood and erosion control, wetlands and other green infrastructure or natural cover, for the benefit of the proposed communities, and those downstream,” said Stephens.

Stephens expressed concern that the “proposed changes may undermine our ability to effectively deliver an important provincially mandated function in the planning and permitting of development.”

Annual meeting planned for Jan. 19

The board of directors for Saugeen Conservation has decided on a return to in-person meetings, especially for the annual general meeting scheduled for 1 p.m. on Jan. 19 at the offices in Formosa.

“It promises to be a very busy year,” said Stephens, who noted a number of changes coming down the pipe.

As are all meetings of the board of directors, it’s open to the public (except sections held “in camera”). Those wishing to appear as a delegation must contact Saugeen Conservation ahead of time.

The agenda of the annual meeting will include election of a chair and vice-chair. The 15-member board of directors consists of Moiken Penner (Arran-Elderslie), Greg McLean (Brockton), Peter Whitten (Chatsworth), Paul Allen (Grey Highlands), Sue Paterson (Hanover), Mike Niesen (South Bruce, Howick, Morris-Turnberry), Larry Allison (Huron-Kinloss), Jennifer Prenger and Bill Stewart (Kincardine), Steve McCabe (Minto and Wellington North), Dave Myette and Bud Halpin (Saugeen Shores), Barbara Dobreen (Southgate), and Kevin Eccles and Tom Hutchinson (West Grey).

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times