How wetlands can become houses — in spite of provincial policy
NDP MPP Peter Tabuns suggested that the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority was running roughshod over provincial laws
Thanks to permits issued before Betamax went out of style, a development near Lake Simcoe is going ahead despite policies designed to stop projects exactly like it
By John Michael McGrath TVO
Inevitably, the meeting ended with shouts of “Shame on you.” It was March 23, and the board of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority had gathered to consider various matters of interest, including a permit application for a subdivision that would occupy hundreds of acres of land in Georgina. The LSRCA voted to approve it, although the land in question constitutes “provincially significant wetlands” according to Ontario’s conservation rules.
At Queen’s Park on Monday, NDP MPP Peter Tabuns mentioned the case, referring to it as an example of conservation authorities in the province running amok, approving development on land they’re supposed to be protecting.
“This isn’t the first time that a rogue conservation authority has run roughshod over the province’s laws to protect wetlands and natural heritage,” Tabuns said.
Welland MPP Cindy Forster (who announced earlier this year that she won’t be running for re-election) has been a critic of Ontario’s conservation authorities and advocated for greater provincial oversight of their decisions.
The LSRCA’s decision outraged locals (hence the shouting), but the blame for the looming loss of wetlands more properly lies with 30 years of policymaking at Queen’s Park.
The government first granted building permissions for the Maple Lake Estate lands — which comprise approximately 200 hectares close to Georgina’s waterfront on Lake Simcoe — in the early 1980s, well before the province adopted policies such as the Greenbelt. These permissions were subsequently confirmed by both the Ontario Municipal Board and the provincial cabinet and then baked in to the local and regional official plans. They’ve persisted for 30 years, despite all the changes that have been made to other provincial planning policies.
So long as these planning approvals are in place, the LSRCA says, its hands are tied: staff warned that even a symbolic “no” vote could expose the authority to legal costs if the owner ended up appealing it to either a provincial tribunal or (the more costly option) the courts.
The North Georgina Forest Alliance has appealed Georgina’s official plan to the Ontario Municipal Board, and a hearing is scheduled for late May. But local municipal officials have always maintained that only provincial action can save these wetlands. Tabuns agrees: any realistic plan to save these wetlands is probably going to have to come from Queen’s Park.
Last year during the Greenbelt revision process, local authorities were hoping that a solution could be reached through a land swap. DG Group, owner of the Maple Lake Estate lands, was willing to give up development plans for the 200 hectares of wetlands in exchange for being allowed to build on a smaller parcel of agricultural lands currently protected under that legislation. The province, though, refused Georgina’s request.
There’s another option: Tabuns suggests that the government should issue a ministerial zoning order, effectively overruling existing official plans and zoning rules in the name of a significant provincial interest.
MZOs are rarely used, but they’re not unheard of. In 2013, the Liberals used one to approve the construction of a Canadian Tire warehouse in Caledon. The 2017 legislation that reformed the OMB also strengthened the government’s powers by weakening the right to appeal MZOs to the board: Queen’s Park has a stronger hand, if it wants to play it. The case for using an MZO in Georgina is pretty straightforward: the government recognizes these lands as significant. Provincial policy forbids development on literally any other lands like them. Planning permissions granted before VHS defeated Betamax shouldn’t be seen as etched in stone.
Minister of Municipal Affairs Bill Mauro isn’t moved by this case. “I’m not contemplating an MZO,” he told TVO.org. “On land-use planning, as a government, we’ve got an incredibly strong record on enhancing, preserving, and protecting green space … We’re just not considering any kind of action at this time.”
Which leaves the case before the OMB. The tribunal was recently renamed the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal, but the case was filed last year and so will be heard under the old rules, which were widely viewed as developer-friendly. If the board upholds the status quo, it will only be endorsing decades of policy approved at both the municipal and provincial levels. Of course, if it overturns the current policy and protects the Georgina wetlands, this still won’t necessarily be over — that decision could still be challenged in court.