Province's Bill 229 limits ability to protect the environment, conservation authorities say

Local conservation authorities say they'll be significantly hindered by changes proposed by the province, which allow developers to bypass them for appeals and remove citizen representation from their boards.

Ministry says proposal will improve governance 'while respecting taxpayer dollars'

The changes would mean developers could bypass conservation authorities for appeals, and citizens would be removed from their boards. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Local conservation authorities say changes proposed by the provincial government will greatly hinder their ability to protect the environment and watershed. 

The Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA), Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) and Conservation Halton (CH) have all sent letters to the provincial government calling on them to scrap the plans.

"These changes will significantly compromise and in some cases, completely change the role of conservation authorities to protect Ontario's environment and ensure people and property are safe from natural hazards," said a media release from the NPCA, which also covers portions of Haldimand County and Hamilton. 

Bill 229, an omnibus budget measures bill tabled by the Progressive Conservatives on Nov. 5, included a section amending the Conservation Authorities Act.

Among the proposed changes in Schedule 6, the bill opens up new appeal avenues allowing developers to bypass conservation authorities. It also removes citizens from their boards and mandates that they be comprised of elected officials. 

Chandra Sharma, CAO and secretary/treasurer at NPCA, said in a media release that the group anticipated provincial support after deploying its limited resources during the pandemic to ensure people could enjoy the outdoors safely. 

The proposed changes, she said, are disappointing. 

A letter to the government from HCA chairman and Hamilton Ward 12 Coun. Lloyd Ferguson said "the legislative changes appear to be an excessive intervention in local matters in an area where the province makes little financial contribution."

The province contributes two per cent of HCA's annual revenues for the operating budget. Municipal partners cover 38 per cent, and self-generated funds cover the other 60 per cent. 

The HCA said it doesn't want to see an increased risk to public safety or more red tape. 

The Ministry of Environment, Recreation and Parks says it started holding extensive consultations about the role of conservation authorities in late 2019. 

The proposal outlined in the Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act will "improve the governance, oversight and accountability of conservation authorities while respecting taxpayer dollars by giving municipalities more say over the conservation authority services they pay for," said ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler. 

Conservation authorities "could still provide advice/support" to municipalities and the province for appeals of Planning Act decisions. This would streamline the process, and increase accountability, consistency and transparency, he said. 

The Canadian Environment Law Association, who analyzed the changes, said the bill is the most recent example of a "disturbing trend" of using omnibus budget measures bills to make substantive changes to environmental laws and sidestep the Environmental Bill of Rights. 

"The package of amendments as proposed are likely to set back watershed planning and implementation of an ecosystem-based approach by decades," it said. 

Potential delays, increased costs

Appeals can currently be made to each of the 36 conservation authorities across the province.

The change would allow developers to skip them and go straight to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, and gives the ability for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to issue certain permits. 

Local conservation authorities all pointed out that permits would be issued without watershed data and expertise from the conservation authorities. There are seven major watersheds within the boundaries of the HCA. 

According to the HCA's letter, Conservation Ontario estimates the changes could create a delay to approvals as long as 200 days. Costs are expected to increase, the letter said, because of more staff time being spent on permit appeals. 

The letter also says that conservation authorities have been asking for the ability to stop work orders to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Prosecution, injunctions, and fines — what the conservation authority currently has to work with — aren't enough, it said. 

No citizen representation, only elected officials

Removing citizen representation from the board, said the letter, would also be a drastic change to the expertise available. The board is made up of 10 members from Hamilton and one representative from the township of Puslinch, and half of these people are citizens. 

The spokesperson from the ministry said having elected officials would "better represent the interests of their municipalities." The Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks would also appoint a member from the agricultural sector to each conservation authority.

But having a municipally-appointed councillor make the decisions in the interest of the municipality they represent, and not the conservation authority, said the HCA, would be "contrary to proper board governance." 

An additional amendment requiring the rotating of chair and vice-chair roles would also mean the Puslinch representative would fill one of these positions every two years, despite 99 per cent of the watershed being in the city of Hamilton. 

Since introducing the legislation, the ministry said it has been "continuously engaged with conservation authorities, municipalities, Indigenous communities, landowners, and development, agricultural, environmental and conservation organizations."

"We appreciate their ongoing feedback and we will take it all under consideration as we look at making amendments to the legislation to ensure we put conservation authorities in the best position possible to be able to deliver on their core mandate," said Wheeler. 


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