John Bacher sounds warning about Ford government’s relaunch of Growth Plan consultations
Photo shows Thundering Waters wetlands where offsetting scheme was tried in past. Development advocates at recent Growth Plan consultation by province urged wetland offsetting be permitted by change to provincial regulation.
By Dr. John Bacher November 9 2018
On November 8, 2108 the newly elected Ontario government began a rather ominous process to revise land use planning process in Ontario. The setting was the “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Stakeholders Forum” which was held at the Ontario Room of the MacDonald Block at 900 Bay Street in Toronto on November 8, 2018.
The forum which had around two hundred participants, had been previously discussed with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, (AMO). It was far more noisy than most government consultations on land use planning with buzzers frequently telling table panels when their time was up. The celebratory tone used by the facilitator resembled that of an auctioneer.
Planners from Waterloo Region appeared to attempt to push discussions in a more environmentally sensitive manner, as they alone stressed issues such as climate change and facilitating conservationist land securement.
Most of those in attendance in the forum were municipal planners and planners who work with the land development industry. I appeared to be the only “stakeholder”, to represent an environmental protection group. While a researcher for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society, (PALS), I seemed to have received the invitation as Chair of the Ontario Chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada.
The forum was the basis for launching a new consultation paper on the Growth Plan. While the Growth Plan according to statute must be reviewed every ten years, from the tenor of the discussions at the Forum, it is clear that the time involved in making changes will be less than that. It may take place after two additional consultation meetings in less than a year.
The disturbing aspects of the proposals in the documents are found in the area termed “Settlement Area Boundary Expansions.” These are not explicitly termed government proposals, but more ambiguously called “What we Heard From You” and “What Some of You Proposed.”
Under “What we Heard From You”, the paper wrote the following. “The new criteria and process for justifying a settlement boundary expansion are seen as overly focused on process rather than outcome (e.g. Specifying the number of studies required) and that there are concerns about how long it could take to make new land available for development.”
Under “What Some of You Proposed”, two quite specific proposals are put forward. The first is that, “The process for settlement boundary expansions should be streamlined.” The second is that, “There e the opportunity for some settlement area boundary expansions to occur in between municipal comprehensive review cycles (subject to criteria).”
The proposal that settlement boundary expansions take place sooner than the five year comprehensive review cycle is the most troublesome of those unveiled at the Forum.
A major reform in land use planning initiated 15 years ago through changes to the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement n (PPS), was that urban boundary expansions can only be made through a five year comprehensive review. Before this long overdue reform, there was land use planning chaos on the urban fringe.
After quite detailed scrutiny through expert testimony and hearings by the Ontario Municipal Board, (OMB), urban boundary expansions that had been debated for decades could suddenly be reversed through a new application. Then the process would start all over again the hope of being heard by a favourable OMB hearing officer.
A basic principle of the Growth Plan is that is intended to have a land use planning system for the high growth pressure area of the Greater Golden Horseshoe which is more restrictive than the minimal standards of the Planning Act and its PPS. To change this reality would be to dissolve the Growth Plan.
There would be no sense in having a Growth Plan that is more permissive in terms of urban boundary expansions than the Planning Act and the PPS. It would also be a signal for a corrosive change to the Planning Act and the PPS. Sprawl would spread like cancer across Ontario.
Compounding the proposed Provincial government changes at the Forum, were comments from developers and municipal planners .These were made both from the various tables and at the end in ten -second clips which were termed quick comments for the Minister of Municipal Affairs.
A frightening array of suggestions were made by Forum participants. One was to abolish the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC). Such “sun-setting” was suggested as well as a ten second Ministerial plea that the Escarpment Plan be administered by municipalities.
There was no opportunity in the Forum to illustrate the problems of municipal administration of Greenbelt rules in the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Protected Countryside of the Greenbelt, such as illegal dumping, which on the Escarpment Plan area is corrected through NEC clean up orders. Also the much greater success in extending forest cover in the Escarpment Plan area through the NEC plan administration than the rest of the Greenbelt was ignored.
Another call by developers’ agents was the repeal of Bill 137, which created the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT). There was a lament for the supposed good old days of the OMB, claiming the new system gave less weight to expert witnesses. Such claims ignored how the major reform in the LPAT process is the abolition of cross examination of experts. This will reduce the role of lawyers, not experts. The Forum strongly reflected the views powerful special interest group known as the Municipal Bar.
Another cry was raised that the “White Belt” lands adjacent to the Greenbelt be given a new status in a revised Growth Plan. It was urged that these lands be formally designated as an “Urban Reserve”. This would have quite negative impacts of encouraging severe storm water pollution from rapid urbanization of these lands, which are primarily, Class One and Two agricultural lands. Development here could seriously degrade the Don, Humber, Rouge, the Credit, and Carruthers Creek.
The most worrisome Forum calls, were the advocacy of wetland offsetting and a greater role for Conservation Authorities in land use planning. Efforts by the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority to do this have been recently condemned by the Ontario Auditor General. Her report noted that their studies to justify offsetting at Thundering Waters in Niagara Falls (now under appeal by the author of this article) lacked any field research.
What makes the call for considering wetland offsetting so outrageous is that it was made after the disastrous impact of the Houston USA Flood, where its death toll was intensified by the paving over of previously protected wetlands through offsets. Most of these offsets were outright fraud. Monies for offsets were largely paid to firms to design recreated wetlands, which were never actually constructed.
Buzz bells do not generate good policy. If there is are to be any revisions to the Growth Plan, it should be done only after studies are published which do not currently exist. These should look at matters such as the existing capacity of urban boundaries, and the potential harm that could be triggered by the actual urbanization of the White Belt lands.