Midhurst meeting on Bill 66
Collingwood Councillor Deb Doherty makes a point at Tuesday’s meeting in Midhurst. -AWARE Simcoe photo
Concerns include loss of protection, lack of transparency
By Kate Harries AWARE News Network
Concern and even alarm were the predominant sentiments expressed at a Midhurst meeting on Bill 66 held by the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition on Tuesday October 8. Around 140 people were there, from all over the county. Among them were elected officials from half a dozen municipalities, including Barrie, Collingwood, New Tecumseth, Tiny, Oro-Medonte, Springwater and even Blue Mountains.
One issue was how developer influence will change the landscape if Bill 66 passes – because of the way it overrides protections presently assured by the Clean Water Act, the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, the Greenbelt Act, the Places to Grow Act and others – as well as by local Official Plans.
Municipal councils are subject to extreme pressure from the development industry, said guest speaker Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence.
In answer to a question from Collingwood Councillor Deb Doherty, Gray noted that it will be possible for a developer to purchase land in a protected area, for instance in the Greenbelt or within the Lake Simcoe watershed, and then convince a majority of councillors to have a secret meeting to change the land use.
“We don’t have the kind of controls around developer influence that we have at the provincial political level or at the federal level,” said Gray, “So the money that’s involved coming from the development community that puts pressure on elected officials (that) is very, very high.”
Bill 66, known as the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act, is in the early stages of progress to legislation. It removes the transparency requirements under the Planning Act, and other legislation, providing
Margaret Prophet and Tim Gray
for passage of bylaws with no prior public notice and discussion behind closed doors.
The Ford government says that it will be used for projects that would create at least 50 jobs in municipalities with less than 250,000 people. While employment must be the main purpose, projects can include residential and commercial uses.
Bill 66 runs counter to a growing trend since the 1970s, that involved governments of all political stripes, to identify where development is appropriate and where it isn’t, Gray said. Part of the goal has been to have farmland valued as farmland, keeping speculators away and making it possible for young people to get into farming.
“All that changes once this bill passes,” Gray said. “All that farmland is no longer just farmland.” It becomes potential development land and speculation takes off. “We’ve been trying to get away from that.” He noted that there is already a surplus of designated, serviced employment lands in Simcoe County – a total of 2,919 hectares.
The ramifications of Bill 66 are many. For one thing, the cost to the existing taxpayer of providing new infrastructure will rise, Gray said. Already, it is recognized that development does not pay for itself and the local municipality has to assume a portion of the new costs, adding them to the existing ratepayers’ tax bill.
Another issue is that for rural municipalities with a relatively low tax base and spread-out population, the cost of sprawl will be particularly burdensome, Gray predicted, particularly as the Ford government plans to ease the burden on developers and reduce development charges.
“You as the taxpayer will get to subsidize the new development,” Gray told the crowd.
Furthermore, Bill 66 will set up municipalities for competition with each other in a race to the bottom, Gray said. “If you change the rules so that environmental protection is seen as a luxury, because if you don’t decide to destroy the environment around your community, maybe the next community down the road will decide to do it instead.”
Oro Medonte Councillor Scott Macpherson pointed out that Bill 66 gives more power to municipalities and local decision-making.
“I’ve heard this argument from provincial officials,” Gray said. “We’re empowering the local municipal decision-makers, but we’re also going to help make sure that the people who live in the local communities don’t know about the proposed bylaw, aren’t consulted, don’t have a public meeting, and can’t appeal.
“I don’t know, that seems fishy,” he said to laughter from the crowd.
Gray said the government is not being truthful about the effect of the bill. “They’re just denying that the bill does what it does. They’re saying it doesn’t open up the Greenbelt, which is just a bald-faced lie. The bill specifically does that, it specifically opens up source water protection areas, the Lake Simcoe watershed etcetera.”
After working in environmental protection for 25 years, Gray said he’s used to spin – but “even I can be shocked and appalled by this political behaviour.”
Barrie planner Al McNair said provincial officials have told him that the powers being conveyed to municipalities are like those provided for in ministerial zoning orders, used in the past to override local municipal decisions.
The history of such orders is that they have been used sparingly, in exceptional situations where municipalities refused to put in any appropriate land use controls, McNair said, recalling the sprawl that spread north of Barrie into Vespra Township in the 1960s and ‘70s.
They were used “to freeze things until you had at least some semblance of municipal planning control in place,” McNair said. “Where this is turning the whole thing completely on its head – we’re empowering municipalities to go back to the bad old days when they didn’t have any rules and I think it’s just bloody stupid!”
Gray added that Bill 66 totally changes the structure of planning, from a ministerial intervention being a special case to “just this routine violation of all these land use protection rules all around the province.”
The final problem with Bill 66 is that it erodes local democracy, Gray said, by allowing secret meetings of council to approve development in protected areas.
The solution is for councils to refuse to use the undemocratic powers provided to them under Bill 66. Already, some municipalities have taken a stand against Bill 66 and passed resolutions to state that if passed, they won’t be using its provisions.
Doherty said she hopes Collingwood will do the same, and Barrie Councillors Keenan Aylwin and Natalie Harris said they will be putting forward a resolution to that effect next week.
Nancy McBride from Tottenham warned others in attendance to pressure politicians against removing protection. “The protections that we already have are not enough,” she said, explaining that the water in Tottenham is brown and “terrible.” Whether it’s federal, provincial or municipal, “you’ve got a bunch of people that have ignored us from all levels of government and our requests for clean water have been ignored.”
People think they are protected, but in fact what is in place are guidelines, “policies that we (governments) may or not decide to follow.” She called on residents to become involved. Hoping for the best won’t cut it, she said. “it takes everybody telling everybody else that we need to act – because this is a worldwide crisis.”
Her words echoed those of Vickie Monague of Beausoleil First Nation, who opened the meeting with a resounding call on people to become engaged. “If we fail to act, we grow the burden on future generations,” she said.