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Fed up with their conservation authorities

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In Essa
Apr 14th, 2010
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Why some farmers and townships are fed up with their conservation authorities

By Patrick Meagher Eastern Ontario Farmers Forum February 2010
FINCH — All the man wanted to do was spread soil over his back yard to eliminate the slope and level if off. The local conservation authority swooped in to take photographs, analyze the development and demand $500 for a permit. The man backed off and hasn’t touched his yard since.
“He’s afraid to do anything in his yard because they are watching,” said local mayor David Guergis.
Another property owner built a 10 ft. by 12 ft shed and was charged more for permits than for the cost of the shed, he said. The conservation authority also asked the property owner to explain how one would escape the building in the event of a flood. “It’s a shed,” said an exasperated Guergis. “But he had to get engineer stamped drawings.”
Guergis, the mayor of Essa Township (pop. 16,900), near Barrie, has more horror stories concerning the Notawasaga Conservation Authority. He is among a growing number of municipal politicians across the province who are outraged by what they see as out-of-control conservation authorities charging exorbitant fees for unnecessary permits and duplication of services.
“It’s all about fees and money,” said Guergis, who said sometimes property owners seeking a permit are asked to sign over their marginal lands to the CA. Feeling intimidated, some do, he said. “It happens all the time.”
Guergis said the conservation authority employs 38 people but could do the same job with two or three. “I don’t mind paying the money if it is going into environmental repair. But the money is going into bureaucracy.”
He recently tried to pass a resolution to dissolve the CA. It got “shock value” but little more. There are 36 conservation authorities in Ontario but only two – South Nation and Nottawasaga — have angered a minority of municipal councillors so much they want to get rid of them.
South Stormont (pop. 12,520) councillor Tammy Hart said her township, southeast of Ottawa, is “fed up” with the South Nation Conservation Authority and that many eastern Ontario drainage superintendents complain about bureaucratic red tape. Last month the South Stormont council voted unanimously to ask the province to conduct an audit of the CA’s mandate, responsibilities and pricing system. It is the third township in five months that voted to seek an independent audit of its CA. The central Ontario townships of Essa and Mulmar are both asking for audits of Nottawasaga.
South Nation general manager Dennis O’Grady downplayed the South Stormont resolution, saying that none of the other 14 townships have concerns with the conservation authority. “I’m sure the odd councillor has issues and other councillors are happy. Which do you choose to report on?”
He added that in his more than 22 years with the conservation authority, every municipality has had issues with the CA but they get resolved. Based in the village of Finch, South Nation Conservation Authority employs 45 people and is one the largest employers in the area with an annual budget of $8 million and charges $450 for each seven-hour day for services that often include reviews and reports. Its fees are generally much higher than fees for similar work by the neighbouring Raisin River Conservation Authority. O’Grady defended his prices as fair and said he is in favour of an independent audit. Noting that it would cost $50,000 he asked: “Who’s going to pay for it?…The province won’t.”
“There seems to be a pattern here,” Said Don Pearson, general manger of Conservation Ontario, a central authority for water conservation and defender of conservation authorities. Municipalities have a number of issues including “what some people would describe as regulatory creep” and the increasing burden of municipal levies, he said.
But his take on the matter is that a small number of complaints doesn’t amount to much when about 400 municipalities work with conservation authorities across the province. The idea of out-of-control CAs is “a red herring to me,” he said, noting that this is a municipal election year, inferring that there may be ulterior motives to turning conservation authorities into an issue. He said he doesn’t want to minimize landowner rights but “I sometimes think the dialogue gets a bit escalated above what the experience really is.”
Is this just a tempest in a tea pot? Absolutely not, says chair of the Land Use Council, a Sunderland–based grassroots umbrella group, Bruce Pearse. “It’s the tip of the iceberg.” He couldn’t say how many conservation authorities are facing criticism as his group is just beginning to focus on the issue. But he sees the same concerns with every township he turns to. There is a “growing unease with excessive power and inflated costs of district conservation authorities,” Pearse wrote in a recent open letter to the Ministry of Natural Resources. Pearse called for an “independent investigation into local tensions, ballooning costs and failed public relations now attributed to some CAs in Ontario.”
The Peel Federation of Agriculture has just publicized beefs of its own. In a stinging letter last month to the Region of Peel, the farm lobby group unloaded a plethora of concerns, charging that the Credit Valley Conservation Authority policies do not follow the original intent of the Conservation Authorities Act. The federation says conservation authority policies duplicate services, “increase costs to practically any scale of development,” increase the property tax burden and “fail to address the need for practical conservation.”
The Peel Federation of Agriculture also notes that its conservation authority has “a practice of demanding private lands they deem environmental in some way, without compensation as a condition of development.”
Meantime, disgruntled townships are actually talking about dissolving their CAs, which sounds like asking for the impossible but isn’t. “It would be my dream come true,” said Clearview Township deputy mayor Alicia Savage, also in the district of Nottawasaga. She penned a report sent to the county seeking an alternative to the CA. She hopes to find a mechanism to avoid second and third permits, to re-examine the fee structure and to determine “who does what?” to avoid duplication of services and speed up the process. Other municipalities will be watching the outcome closely.
The next step, if necessary, is for area municipalities to replace their representatives on the Notawasaga Valley Conservation Authority board, Savage said. In an interesting quirk of the system, a CA board can vote to disband its conservation authority. If that were to happen, the municipality would have to set up a replacement to comply with provincial policy. Some municipalities are already doing this at a fraction of the cost with environmental associations. Severn Sound provides its own flood plain evaluation with its environmental association that costs $19,146 a year.
Nearby Notawasaga CA charges the Township of Oro-Medante (pop. 23,000) $156,000 for essentially the same service, said township mayor Harry Hughes, north of Barrie. “There’s a fair amount of empire building going on in these conservation authorities. They don’t want to cut back on staff.”
He said when his township complained that an environmental association would be less expensive, the local CA noted that the association cannot do enforcement. Hughes points out that neither does the CA. That’s why the township hired its own full-time bylaw officer, he said. “So, they’re charging us for a service they can’t deliver.”
Ken Ferdinands, councillor for the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville (pop. 35,000) said that CAs were introduced as a water-based regulatory agency to provide flood protection. But now they have crept into areas of slopes, unstable soils, significant vegetative lands and now even areas that are high and dry.
“This is a sleeper issue,” Ferdinands said. “The issues affect a minority of people but a majority of landowners.”
CA activity “sterilizes land with red tape,” he said. “There is a process but who the hell understands it? Nobody.”

One Response to “Fed up with their conservation authorities”

  1. I’m a 35 acre property owner in Brighton.
    Our CA is a scourge on individual property owners in my area.
    If you mention CA to any cottage or home owner in my neighbourhood, who understands the restrictions that have been imposed upon them, you immediately get a negative or disgruntled reaction.
    The CA is simply a tax collector, destroying property values and the enjoyment of privately owned land, to aid or protect mosquitoes and frogs.
    I wish that I as a tax payer were given the same standard of care in preserving my property rights and the lifestyle that I chose to live.
    I wish that Prince Edward County would get rid of their CA and hire one individual who understood that I should be allowed the right to raise my family in a Lake front cottage, without interference and threats of aggression by Big Brother.

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