Upper Thames River Conservation Authority has concerns about province's plans to speed development
UTRCA advises city planners on flood risk of development applications
The head of the conversation authority that serves London is concerned legislative changes being pushed through by the Ontario government could limit the organization's role in reviewing projects for flood risk and other natural hazards.
The More Homes Built Faster Act — already in its second reading at Queen's Park — is intended to simplify and streamline the approval process for development applications. The Doug Ford government says it's making the changes to fast-track home building to address a province-wide housing shortage.
London is among 29 municipalities in the province's plan to build 1.5 million homes by 2031. The plan calls for constructing 47,000 of those units in London.
The province's plan includes standardizing how Ontario's 36 different conservation districts operate. The conservation districts are often called in to advise municipal planning departments on projects that could affect everything from water quality, to flood damage and wetland conservation.
Tracy Annett is the general manager of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA). She said each conservation authority covers a specific area with rules suited to each one's unique topography. For example, the UTRCA's management includes the Thames River and its tributaries, and so its staff has a lot of expertise on flood protection but doesn't touch a great lake so it isn't so focused on shoreline erosion.
"There is a whole list of acts that we may be reduced in our commenting ability," she said of the province's proposed changes. "And there may be new authority to issue exemptions for natural hazard permits where there's been a Planning Act approval in place."
Annett said the advice the UTRCA provides to municipalities is very technical and detailed and often touches multiple pieces of legislation.
London's rules regarding flood protection are based on the devastating 1937 flood. In contrast, rules in other conservation authorities are based on Hurricane Hazel, which killed more than 80 people in the Toronto area in 1954.
Last year alone, the UTRCA provided its input on a number of building projects before London city council, including applications for the Boler Heights and Sunningdale Court subdivisions.
The UTRCA also advised the city on flood risks of a now-approved application to build a 40-storey tower on the shores of the Thames River near Harris Park, an area that often sees flooding.
"In our view, natural hazard permitting is essential to ensure safe communities," said Annett.
Along with speeding up the pace of construction, the province also wants to reduce the cost developers face. Conservation authority fees for development permits and proposals will be temporarily frozen if the province's legislation becomes law.
Annett said those fees are essential to the UTRCA's ability to provide environmental oversight.
"We feel that development should be paying for development," she said, noting that the UTRCA's fees operate on a cost-recovery basis.
"If we're not able to recover our costs, and there's no mechanisms in place to deal with any shortfalls," she said. "We're not saying 'No' to development, but we want to ensure safe development."
A spokesperson for Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Graydon Smith told reporters that conservation authorities would continue to serve a role in advising municipalities on protecting people from flooding and other natural hazards such as erosion.