The Ford government has made a mess of planning. Now, municipal governments have a chance to correct some of that.

Our open letter on the reversal announced by this government to changes made to municipal official plans, outlining our concerns with a lack of accountability and transparency in how the Minister is proceeding.

The Greenbelt scandal is a symptom of a larger problem, of a trend towards a lack of accountability in democratic decision making.

Anyone who follows the news in Ontario will know that this government has been forced into a humiliating retreat in its attempt to give land from the Greenbelt to a select group of well-connected developers.

Screenshot of CBC's coverage of Ontario Premier Doug Ford announcing the reversal to Greenbelt land take-outs. Credit CBC.

This screenshot is from CBC’s coverage of Premier Ford’s announcement of the reversal of the Greenbelt land take-outs.

As you read through the rest of this piece, consider the theatre of this image, with the many MPPs arrayed behind the Premier, and the difference between that nod to collective accountability and the private message from the new Minister to mayors.

See more of CBC’s coverage here.

What is less well known is that another major policy reversal, with many parallels to the Greenbelt scandal, is currently underway, too. For many, this second reversal may be even more impactful than that which deals with the Greenbelt.

At around the same time that Greenbelt lands were being carved up, municipalities across Ontario were sending their Official Plan to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing for approval.

Official Plans are the result of years of hard work. Town halls were held and public engagement portals established so that residents could be involved in the process, providing input into how their communities would be shaped over the coming years. Municipal staff, mayors, and councillors worked to incorporate this feedback, representing a dialogue between local government and citizens, into the plans, such that they reflected the priorities of communities they represent. And, finally, these plans were debated and passed by municipal councils, elected by and accountable to their constituents.

The process in Ontario is for these plans, passed by municipalities, to then be sent on to the Ministry for approval. This is in large part due to the role that the provincial government is meant to play in overseeing and coordinating regional planning. So, accordingly, plans were sent to the Ministry. Within short order, however, many of these plans were returned with lines crossed out, words replaced, and whole paragraphs added.

Official Plans Changed Unilaterally

In Hamilton, the Official Plan was changed so that thousands of hectares of farmland meant to remain off limits to development was, instead, opened up for development. (Ryan Amato, Chief of Staff to Minister Clarke and who was central to the Greenbelt scandal, was also involved with this decision.)

Closer to home, Barrie’s Official Plan was edited to water down requirements for affordable housing and increased density, among many other changes that developers wanted but hadn’t been included.

Often the changes made by the Ministry closely follow language used in requests for changes to the plan that were made by third parties, namely developers or their representatives.

Again, well connected developers had what seemed like a preferential connection to the Minister’s office that, in effect, placed their interests above that of the public. The result was the overriding of the processes of public engagement that helped to shape the Official Plans passed by municipalities. Voices of community members, as a consequence, were ignored and shut out.

This is a view of community ownership that sees it as belonging to developers, rather than those who live and work there.

Retreat, or Attempt to Do An End-Run

The retreat from these changes are likely an attempt to stem the deluge of negative responses to the government’s misleading of the public, to their preferential treatment of some of the province’s wealthiest individuals, and to their disregard for due processes and democratic accountability.

On the Ministry’s website, the announcement of the reversal states that they would “wind back provincial changes to official plans and official plan amendments”. In the statement there are two specific exceptions, namely, “in circumstances where construction has begun” or “where doing so would contravene existing provincial legislation and regulation”.

That’s what the Minister is telling the public.

What he’s telling mayors, privately, is very different.

The End-Run

In an email to mayors, recently leaked to Environment Defence, the Minister makes assurances that the province will accept, “changes that the municipality would like to see made to the official plan, based on the modifications that the province had previously made, and which you [the Mayor] support.” (Emphasis added.)

A clipping of the letter, which was leaked to Environmental Defence, that Minister Calandra sent privately to mayors, in which he indicates they may make unilateral changes to Official Plans.

Find the whole letter on Environmental Defence’s website, here.

As with the Greenbelt scandal, decision making authority is being removed from the processes previously established.

Public input and engagement is left out, due and deliberate process is left out, incorporating the expertise of staff is left out. Those with access to mayors, whether inside or outside of established channels, have the advantage.

The informality of this is exactly what characterised the process, or lack thereof, that led to the Greenbelt land take-outs – trips by MPPs and staff together with developers to Las Vegas, invitations to family weddings where manilla envelopes with instructions on which land parcels should be removed from the Greenbelt were passed between developers and members of the government, government members using personal phones and email for correspondence, which makes it difficult for records of communications to be obtained.

Why Due Process is Important, and Conclusion

It seems strange to have to say this, but necessary given the repeated actions of this government – due processes exist for a reason, which is that they are transparent, accountable, and as such provide outcomes that benefit all of society, not just a select few.

The Ministry has it right with its public statement – Official Plans should be reinstated as they were passed by municipal councils.

The Minister, however, does not have it right with his private message to mayors. Even with so-called “strong mayor” powers, mayors do not have the mandate to unilaterally change an Official Plan.

To that end, we are heartened that some mayors of affected communities, including Barrie’s, seem to have come out in favour of fully reinstating the Official Plan as it was developed through the established process.

This is important, we believe, to underline democratic principles of due process, including public participation and accountability.

It is also important as it reaffirms the mandate linked to the passage of the Official Plan, which was that of the previous council. Substantial changes to work done by past councils, or any other government for that matter, without using established processes, is an extremely problematic precedent to set.

We recognize that as time passes changes may be necessary, but this must be done using the processes in place. The Official Plan is updated every 5 years, and processes such as secondary plans can address changes outside of that timeframe. These processes include council, public engagement mechanisms, and ensure that any changes made remain accountable to the public.

Official Plans are among the most important components of planning and building our communities, the places where we live, play, and work. They deserve to be given the highest level of consideration, which includes the best possible process of deliberation.

Adam Ballah

Adam has worked with SCGC since, almost, its conception. He holds a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University, and is deeply interested (and concerned) with intersections between risk, vulnerability, and security when it comes to climate impacts.

Ramara’s MZO application
on Lake Couchiching

We hope that the City of Orillia will take a stand for the interests of its residents and the lake and officially oppose the MZO application request.

This letter was sent to the Mayor and Council of Orillia on January 12, 2021.

Grave Concerns

The undersigned is writing to you today with grave concerns about a MZO application recently submitted to the province by the Township of Ramara and supported the County of Simcoe. We strongly believe that this development is not in the best interest of Lake Couchiching, the environment writ large or the City of Orillia and its residents.

As you can see from the graphic below, a large portion of this development resides within a provincially significant wetland (PSW) and infringes on others. Currently, development within a PSW is prohibited under Ontario’s planning laws. A MZO would remove these prohibitions.

Figure 1.

In Figure 2, it is clear to see how the developments will also infringe on water intake protection zones as well as significant forests.

Figure 2.

For clarity, the development proposal would include 3 separate developments. The MZO is asking for all three of the development applications to be approved including:

Harbour Village at the Narrows (listed as “Resort Residential” on Fig. 1&2)

    • 258 room hotel, an additional 1,678 mixed units proposed

    • Creating 6,414 additional feet of frontage (through harbours and canals) mostly in the midst of a provincially significant wetland which is also one of the last, large intact wetlands on Lake Couchiching

Figure 3.

Rendering of aerial view of Harbour Village at the Narrows. Source: Rama Road Corridor MZO package, Ramara Township
Rendering of aerial view of Harbour Village at the Narrows.
Source: Rama Road Corridor MZO package, Ramara Township

Ramara Waterpark Resort (listed as “Waterpark” on Figures 1&2)

    • Includes a 58,500 sq ft water park, 7 hotels ranging from 6-10 storeys in height (totalling 700 hotel rooms), 8 restaurants, 152 condominium units (6-10 storeys), 252 stacked townhouse units; 8 storey, 34,000 sq ft retirement residence (40 units), commercial and retail space

Figure 4.

Site plan of Ramara Waterpark Resort. Source: Rama Road Corridor MZO package, Ramara Township.
Site plan of Ramara Waterpark Resort.
Source: Rama Road Corridor MZO package, Ramara Township.

Ramara Landing (listed as “Senior Living Homes” on Figures 1&2)

    • 172 townhouse units, 300 resident independent living building, 300 resident long term care home, Two 6 storey condominium towers (150 units total), community centre, water and wastewater treatment plant
Ramara Landing Site Plans overlayed on existing mapping. Source: Rama Road Corridor MZO package, Ramara Township
Ramara Landing Site Plans overlayed on existing mapping.
Source: Rama Road Corridor MZO package, Ramara Township

This application is problematic for the City of Orillia for several reasons.

The health of Lake Couchiching is vital to the health of the City of Orillia

Whether it be for drinking water for residents, recreation or supporting Orillia’s economy via its downtown and tourism, Orillia is highly dependent upon the wellbeing of Lake Couchiching.

A MZO application does not currently require environmental assessments to be completed, as per Section 47 of the Planning Act.

Although Ramara Township references a 1,400 page Environmental Assessment that has been done, it is our understanding that this EA only applies to a portion of the development that is proposed, and that this EA was completed in the early 2000s.

A lot has changed since then.

What we know about the necessity of shoreline wetlands to the health of a lake has also increased.

There is a reason why there aren’t policies within Ontario’s planning regime that guide how development should be done within a provincially significant wetland – because it isn’t allowed.

Since there are no statutory requirements within the Planning Act to complete environmental assessments as part of a MZO and there aren’t policies to guide how building on top of a PSW should be done, it is hard to understand how these wetlands will be protected through a MZO or through this development application at all.

And in the case of these particular shoreline wetlands, they play a significant role in flood mitigation and water filtration of Lake Couchiching.

Impairing these wetlands by building in the heart of them and directly infringing on other parts, squarely puts the health of the lake at risk.

A MZO application is not an appropriate tool for a large development such as this

MZOs cut out several key pieces of the Planning Act process, but most importantly, it removes the statutory consultation and appeal process.

Not only is this process for the public, but also for other stakeholders, such as neighbouring municipalities, to weigh in on shared assets and key issues.

Considering the significant impact this development could have on Orillia’s shoreline, water quality and recreation opportunities, the City of Orillia should be able to have meaningful opportunities to engage in the process and protect its interests.

With a MZO, the approvals are already given and Ramara Township would only be able to handle issues via site plan controls and permitting.

What meaningful process will the City of Orillia have under that system?

If issues do arise, what mechanisms will the City of Orillia have to outline its interests if approvals have already been given?

A large development such as this should have sober second thought, especially within a changing climate and biodiversity loss, but the idea of truncating the process by cutting out consultation through a MZO is unacceptable.

In conclusion

Of course, there are other issues that may be meaningful to members of council such as climate action.

Removal of forests and wetlands is directly incompatible with these goals.1Protecting wetlands and forests can reduce climate adaptation costs2Fighting climate change with conservation3The Role of Wetlands for Climate Change Mitigation and Biodiversity Conservation

The increased boat traffic could also impact shoreline residents on the west side of the lake and historical sites such as the Mnjikaning fish weirs, which are one of the oldest remaining human developments in Canada and a national historic site.

Again, there are many impacts that need to be fully considered, which underscores why a truncated MZO process, which removes meaningful community consultation, is not in the best interest of area residents or other stakeholders.

The City of Orillia has prided itself on its port and Couchiching shorelines. Consequently, council should consider itself a steward of the Lake and deem applications such as this as problematic – especially when utilizing a MZO.

We hope that the City of Orillia will take a stand for the interests of its residents and the lake and officially oppose the MZO application request.

Additional Resources

Help us fight MZO requests.
Send a message to your council and MPP, and report MZOs in your community.
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Comments on the
Species at Risk Conservation Fund

With the Species at Risk Conservation Fund and broader changes to the ESA, the future of these species is very grim.

This letter was submitted to the Environment Registry of Ontario in response to posting ERO 019-2636, which proposes use of a “Species At Risk Conservation Fund.”

Simcoe County’s Context as a Home to Species-At-Risk

At 4,841 square kilometres, Simcoe County is one of the largest regions in the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

Its vast interconnected water system includes provincially and internationally important water resources: Wasaga Beach, Minesing Wetlands, Matchedash Bay and Wye Marsh.

Geologically diverse, Simcoe is home to over 1500 species of vascular plants, 150 species of nesting birds, 50 mammals and 33 types of reptiles and amphibians1Simcoe County Official Plan (2008). Available at: www.simcoe.ca/planning. It offers specialized vegetation communities adapted to unique habitats such as coastal plains, prairies and savannas, alvars, bogs and fens, the Great Lakes shoreline and the Niagara Escarpment. 

In addition, the county contains provincially significant wetlands, provincially significant Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest and more than 60 species of plants and animals deemed vulnerable, threatened or endangered in Ontario and/or Canada.2Simcoe County Official Plan (2008). Available at: www.simcoe.ca/planning

Extensive tracts of undisturbed forest in the north and east are habitats for forest-dwelling birds and mammals.

All these features combine to provide a healthy habitat for Simcoe County residents, flora and fauna.

Photo of a Golden Eagle, close up. Photo by Craig Hughes.
Photo of a Golden Eagle, close up showing the head. Photo by Craig Hughes.

Our concern is how these sensitive habitats will be treated in future under the potential changes.

In broad strokes, we are strongly opposed to the Species at Risk Conservation Fund for the following reasons:

  • The loss of biodiversity has been shown to put climate action and public health at risk. This fund normalizes and establishes a process to continue biodiversity loss without any opposing policies that stop the losses overall;

  • Funds aren’t required to be applied to affected watersheds, municipalities or Indigenous traditional territories where the harm occurs;

  • Provides a perverse incentive to destroy sensitive habitats;

  • Payment into the fund is an alternative to “overall benefit” approach that the Endangered Species Act was intended to uphold;

  • The funding charge fails to fully calculate the risk and liabilities that arise with the removal of sensitive habitats;

  • No long term government financial commitment that assures conservation efforts will continue outside of pay to slay fees. Will this require MECP to allow more permitting and fee collection to keep this fund financially independent as the Ministry anticipates? If the fund is not financially independent as hoped, will funds be diverted from other conservation programs accordingly?

  • Lack of transparency with the public regarding the success indicators of this program including species-specific or cumulative impacts of activities undertaken by proponents. These indicators should be measured and included in public reports.

New Changes Put in Context of Species at Risk in Simcoe County/Lake Simcoe Watershed

As noted in Figure 1, there are several species at risk in one of our watersheds and they are most at risk within Simcoe County communities. The new changes proposed could pose significant threats to Simcoe County’s most vulnerable species and sensitive habitats.

Figure 1: Distribution of provincially rare species (represented as buffered polygons the size of which depend on known location accuracy) arranged by provincial rank (Srank) in the Lake Simcoe watershed.
Figure 1: Distribution of provincially rare species (represented as buffered polygons the size of which depend on known location accuracy) arranged by provincial rank (Srank) in the Lake Simcoe watershed. Source: Vulnerability Assessment for Provincially Rare Species (Species at Risk) in the Lake Simcoe Watershed.

In 2012, MNRF looked at the Lake Simcoe Watershed to assess the vulnerability of species at risk within the Lake Simcoe watershed in light of climate change. Out of the 62 species at risk known in the watershed, 17 were identified as most at risk and therefore high priority for study. As easily seen in Figure 1, these species were most imperilled (red/orange/yellow) in Barrie, Oro-Medonte, Orillia, Innisfil and Bradford West Gwillimbury.

Further, the vulnerability assessment found that two species at risk were going to face devastating futures factoring in climate change – the Redside Dace and the Jefferson salamander. Assessments concluded that in both cases, the current habitat, which is currently under threat, is the only one left that is suitable for them in the entire watershed.

Side by side pictures of a Red sided Dace and a Jefferson Salamander.
Figures 2 and 3, respectively. A Red Sided Dace on the left and a Jefferson Salamander on the right.

Although from two different ecosystems, what these species tell us is all we need to know about how effective current ESA regulations are at protecting species and their habitat.

Urban development is the most significant threat to both of these species as clearly outlined in their recovery strategies.

The Redside Dace requires clean water with forest cover while the Jefferson Salamander requires connected habitat which includes well-functioning wetlands and clean water systems.

However, their habitats continue to be affected by urbanization despite coherent recovery strategies. That we are not only threatening their “officially recognized habitat”, but also degrading adjacent habitats so they have no other habitat options is a scathing assessment of what we are doing to our landscapes and watersheds.

In Conclusion

With the Species at Risk Conservation Fund and broader changes to the ESA, the future of these species is very grim.

We support the submission of Ontario Nature and, like Ontario Nature, stand strongly opposed to the government implementing the Species at Risk Conservation Fund.

Instead, the government should be implementing policy that puts public health first and foremost. This would include stronger protection of sensitive habitats, measures to increase and strengthen biodiversity, preserving places that are known carbon sinks, flooding regulators and climate change mitigators (wetlands, forests).

Unfortunately, these proposals move us further away from forward thinking conservation action that has been the backbone of Ontario’s policy structure for decades.

Additional Resources

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Open letter to Minister Clark regarding Bill 229 and keeping faith with Ontarians

…if this government is truly committed to these initiatives, by which we mean that they are not being used as cheap politics to deflect from the criticism, fully deserved, that they are receiving with regard to the policy changes noted above, then we expect the following…

This letter was written after the Province passed Bill 229, which came after a huge outcry from the public, from environmentalists, from Conservation Authorities, and from municipalities, among others, and which prompted the resignation of seven members of the Province’s Greenbelt Council.

Dear Minister Clark.
 

There has been much attention paid lately to the future of our Conservation Authorities – one of the last regulatory bodies designed to protect our environment. In a response to the public outcry regarding the neutering of Conservation Authorities’ ability to protect water, wetlands and public health, Minister Clark made a series of statements and announcements:

First, was the promise of $30 million dollars to “create, restore and enhance wetlands” across Ontario; 

Second, was a promise to improve the “quality and quantity of the Greenbelt”.  

The timing of these announcements is troubling and does not add to our confidence in the government’s commitment to protecting the environment coming, as it has, on the heels of eight members of the Greenbelt Council quitting in protest over provincial policy changes. Changes that former Toronto Mayor and, until he resigned this past week, Chair of the Greenbelt Council, David Crombie outlined as “high-level bombing”.

But we are willing to accept these announcements in good faith, and we look forward to hearing more about these initiatives. To be very clear, however, if this government is truly committed to these initiatives, by which we mean that they are not being used as cheap politics to deflect from the criticism, fully deserved, that they are receiving with regard to the policy changes noted above, then we expect the following:

  • That no more MZOs will be issued that allow development in provincially significant or locally significant wetlands. It makes no sense to commit to restoring wetlands and putting taxpayer money towards that, while simultaneously destroying or impairing other wetlands. Refusing to do this would be creating a boondoggle for developers, using public money to offset wetland destruction.

  • Any MZO that is issued in the Lake Simcoe watershed will clearly outline how the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan policies will be adhered to, in order to ensure conformity with said policies as MZO conditions.

  • The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan, which will be reviewed in the new year, will be strengthened by building on proven existing policies (e.g. phosphorus loading targets and WWTP moratoriums), demonstrating the government’s commitment to protect the environment with policies that protect more high quality natural cover, including wetlands and forests. This should be a zero loss target and policy structure, meaning that there should be no reduction in the quantity and quality of natural cover going forward. Currently, the target in the LSPP is 40% high quality natural cover – a target that we are failing to meet.

Picture of Lake Simcoe, looking east from Barrie, in the winter time. Photo by Adam Ballah.
Picture of Lake Simcoe, looking east from Barrie, in the winter time. Photo by Adam Ballah.
  • The $30 million Wetland Restoration Fund will be money invested by the Government of Ontario and not “blood money” that comes from developers paying a fee to permit the destruction of wetlands. If it is based on offsetting, this is a “pay to pave” mentality that has been proven disastrous for watershed health in other jurisdictions. Funding wetland restoration through the destruction of other wetlands would be disingenuous to the government’s commitment and breaks faith with Ontarians who rely on wetlands for flood mitigation, drinking water purification and recreation.

  • Growing the Greenbelt includes keeping the existing Greenbelt strong.  We don’t want to see a bait and switch where more Greenbelt is added in exchange for current Greenbelt lands being removed from protection.  The Greenbelt, its farms and communities, contribute $9.6 billion of economic impact and $3.2 billion of environmental services to Ontario every year.  As a region that is growing we will be relying on the services it provides far into the future. Dismantling it through land swaps threatens its ecological functions, and, consequently, its contributions to our collective prosperity and wellbeing.  

  • The province, if it is genuine in its commitment to growing the Greenbelt, will base new included areas on science and public health, not just land ownership. Following such a process means that all source water areas (highly vulnerable aquifers, significant recharge areas, moraines and locally significant wetlands) in Simcoe County should be added to a bigger Greenbelt, at minimum.  Simcoe County residents are highly reliant on groundwater for their daily needs.  If we don’t protect these areas soon, the public’s health is at risk.

We hope that your government is genuine in its commitment to these ends.  We are sure you would agree that using environmental policy as a ploy is dangerous to our public health and erodes faith in our democratic institutions and your governments’ commitment to acting in the best interest of all Ontarians.

Ultimately, it is in no one’s interest that a government fails – such an event has real life consequences for the people of Ontario, including to their health and wellbeing. We are committed to helping where we can to find success in the above noted expectations, but we will not betray our knowledge and understanding, born by evidence, of the actions required to create a more just, prosperous, and sustainable Ontario.  We will be watching closely to ensure that you stick to the commitments you have made and do so in a genuine manner. 

Bill 229 - Additional Resources

Community supported, advocacy for a safe and secure future.

Governments have failed to act to protect our communities and the futures of our children and grandchildren, and they continue to treat our environment as if it’s incidental to life, rather than a foundation for it.

We need strong community organizations to fight for our future, now more than ever.

Please consider donating to support our work. It’s people like you who make us possible.

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