Ottawa

Conservation authorities fear 'sweeping' changes in government bill

Three Ottawa-area conservation authorities fear major changes proposed by the Ontario government could cost them their voice in development decisions, particularly when it comes to environmentally fragile watersheds.

Omnibus bill worries Rideau Valley, Mississippi Valley, South Nation authorities

Staff at conservation authorities are involved in development permits near wetlands and waterways, as well as in areas that have soil erosion or steep slopes. (Ash Abraham/CBC )

Three Ottawa-area conservation authorities fear major changes proposed by the Ontario government could cost them their voice in development decisions, particularly when it comes to environmentally fragile watersheds.

The province began its review of the role of Ontario's 36 conservation authorities a year and a half ago, but the "sweeping" proposals tucked inside an omnibus budget bill tabled Nov. 5 still "shocked" the general manager of the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA).

It is much worse and it goes much further than we ever would have anticipated.- Sommer Casgrain-Robertson, Rideau Valley Conservation Authority

"It is much worse and it goes much further than we ever would have anticipated," said Sommer Casgrain-Robertson. "These changes are so numerous and so significant that it really goes to the heart of what conservation authorities do and how we function."

While the legislation would affect their budgets, mandates and boards of directors, Casgrain-Robertson's biggest concern relates to a conservation authority's diminished role in cases where there are concerns about flooding, soil erosion or altering waterways.

Rideau Valley Conservation Authority general manager Sommer Casgrain-Robertson said she was alarmed by sweeping changes proposed in the budget bill. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

The changes aim to "streamline" the development permit process, allowing the minister to decide on permit applications and even override a conservation authority's decision. The bill also allows for appeals to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.

Casgrain-Robertson said RVCA staff make local decisions based on science, and she fears development permit applications in watersheds could now become politicized.

"We are not an impediment to development," Casgrain-Robertson said, noting the RVCA approves upward of 95 per cent of development permits and cut wait times by half last year.

Government aiming for more accountability

The Rideau Valley, Mississippi Valley and South Nation conservation authorities have joined counterparts across Ontario in calling on the government to withdraw the proposals for more work.

But Ontario's minister of the environment, conservation and parks said a minister's power to take part in the permit process "will be rarely used, if at all," and wouldn't "step outside of the science".

Fixes were needed because the appeal process wasn't working, Jeff Yurek told CBC Sudbury earlier this week.

"What we heard through our consultation was that conservation authorities throughout the entire province were lacking in accountability, transparency and consistency," he said. 

The changes to Bill 226 worry Ottawa city council, too, because the boards of conservation authorities would be made up solely of municipal councillors, rather than a mix of councillors and residents with expertise, ostensibly to provide better oversight over the spending of tax dollars.

City staff said if the changes go through, nearly every council member would need to take a seat on the board of a conservation authority, and take on the workload associated with it.

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario also told the government it had a "growing number of serious concerns," especially "at a time when the public is very concerned about climate change and increased flooding and storm events."

Ontario's standing committee on finance and economic affairs held a hearing on Bill 226 earlier this week, and is expected to consider amendments in the coming days.

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