Editor’s note: The following article written by Monica Seidel was submitted for publication by Watersheds Canada. While the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of this newspaper, The Current reproduces it here because of local interest in the development of Valley waterfront properties. (Above photo: Watersheds Canada)
Ontario’s More Homes Built Faster Act (2022), formerly known as Bill 23, has garnered fierce attention from the public since it was first announced on October 25, 2022, following the Ontario municipal elections. The Bill was made into law only 34 days after it was introduced, leaving many residents still wondering what this means for their communities.
The Bill is part of the Ford government’s larger Housing Supply Action Plan aimed at building 1.5 million homes within 10 years. The growth intended in this plan is mainly focused around the Greater Toronto Area and the Greenbelt. However, sweeping changes to Ontario’s land use planning framework are causing concern among residents and municipalities about the unintended consequences to rural communities and natural heritage features (e.g., lakes, streams, rivers, shorelines, wetlands) across the province. Below are four key changes that affect community planning, development, and the conservation of freshwater in Ontario.
Site plan control
Site plan control is a development review process permitted under Section 41 of the Planning Act and is historically used by municipalities to review development applications of various types. Following Bill 23, its use is now limited to lots with more than ten units, which is a particular loss for the protection of Ontario’s shorelands and freshwater because waterfront development almost entirely consists of units of less than ten.
The loss of site plan control in regulating waterfront development severely affects a municipality’s ability to impose stormwater management requirements to control the quantity and quality of surface runoff, manage flooding and erosion impacts, and the retention of natural heritage features. Until an alternative review process can be found in the existing legislative framework, waterfront development affecting our lakes and rivers will be largely uncontrolled.
Third party appeals
The Ford government originally proposed to scrap all third-party appeals to the Ontario Land Tribunal on matters related to official plans, zoning by-laws, amendments, minor variances, and consents. However, as a result of intense opposition from individuals and organizations like Watersheds Canada, this restriction has been limited to minor variances and consents. Only “specified persons” representing public bodies (e.g., Ontario Power Generation Inc., Hydro One Inc., utility services, railway lines, telecommunications) can now comment on minor variances and consents. Note, conservation authorities have been excluded from this list of specified persons.
Minor variances particularly have been used to grant exceptions to grandfathered properties that fail to meet municipal zoning standards (e.g., setbacks), maintaining the status quo instead of seeking to improve the environmental impact of these properties. Neighbours, community members, First Nations, and conservation authorities will no longer have the opportunity to appeal municipal decisions through these processes to discuss potential impacts a proposed development may have on their property or the watershed they share.
Wetlands are important natural features that provide critical habitat for endangered and at risk species, help clean our air and water, store carbon dioxide, and act as “sponges” that moderate droughts and floods by storing excess water during times of heavy rain and slowly releasing it during dry periods. Previously, Ontario’s wetlands had been grouped into “complexes”, which are groups of small individual wetlands less than 750 metres apart, and were given protective status as “Provincially Significant Wetlands”. Following Bill 23, wetlands will no longer be evaluated as a group but as individuals. This greatly reduces the chances that wetlands will be given protective status because smaller wetlands have a harder time meeting the evaluation criteria (e.g., biodiversity, species at risk, groundwater storage, flood prevention, water quality protection, recreation), making these areas even more susceptible to development.
According to a 2018 report from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, “naturally occurring wetlands in southern Ontario reduce flood damage costs to buildings by $3.5 million (or 29%) at a rural pilot site and by $51.1 million (or 38%) at an urban pilot site.” The report found that flooding has emerged as the most prevalent and costly natural disaster in Canada, so now is not the time to remove the protective status of valuable green infrastructure that serves to mitigate risks and increase the resilience of our communities.
The Province proposes to offset development impacts by creating human-made wetlands but there are many uncertainties as to whether human-made wetlands can effectively replicate the habitat and ecological functions of natural wetlands. Case studies of wetland offsetting in Ontario have failed to demonstrate desired results. This is a concern for many waterfront communities who have experienced severe flooding in recent years and rely on wetlands and floodplains to mitigate risks in times of heavy rainfall, becoming an increasing concern in the face of climate change.
Conservation authorities (CAs) have been severely limited in their ability to help facilitate sustainable development. Following Bill 23, CAs can no longer assist municipalities in reviewing development applications, leaving municipalities without the expertise conservation authorities have previously offered in understanding environmental impacts of proposed development, particularly near waterways and floodplains. CA permits are also no longer required for development projects approved under the Planning Act. When a permit is being issued, the CA can only consider natural hazards (flooding or erosion) as a reason to refuse, whereas previously they could also consider pollution and conservation of lands. Watershed planning, a unique perspective offered by CAs, is severely degraded as a result.
The deregulation of conservation authorities and municipal planning processes, like site plan control, make the lives of municipal decision makers more difficult, especially new Council members who were elected just before the introduction of the Bill. Municipalities typically do not have staff with the expertise and capabilities to effectively evaluate ecological impacts. Therefore municipalities will need to spend more of their limited funds to pay for consultants to fill this gap, leading to potential tax increases for residents.
While Bill 23 is now law, there are a number of regulations (referenced as O. Reg) that need to be made to implement these changes. Therefore, the full effect of the new More Homes Built Faster Act have yet to be seen. Keep up with Watersheds Canada’s Planning for our Shorelands program as we continue to report on how the province’s Housing Supply Action Plan affects waterfront communities and our freshwater resources.
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