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Educating council members might be the key to saving Ontario’s natural spaces from Doug Ford’s housing agenda

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Dec 31st, 2022
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From The Pointer, Dec 22 2022
By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Photo: Alexis Wright

Newly elected Brampton Councillor Navjit Kaur Brar was a respiratory therapist before running for local office. Rookie Mississauga Councillor Martin Reid has a master’s degree in social work. Caledon’s new Ward 6 Councillor, Cosimo Napoli, helped run his family’s home monitoring business prior to running for municipal government.

They had virtually no experience in the complex world of land use and development, but are suddenly responsible for decision making that has far-reaching consequences. They will profoundly impact numerous generations to come.

Currently, under the Doug Ford PC government at Queen’s Park, the adage that “municipalities are creatures of the province” is reverberating across Ontario’s 444 cities and towns. Its plan to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031 will put some of the most sensitive greenspaces and valuable agricultural lands at risk. The strategy has been aggressively pushed by the powerful subdivision development lobby, its battery of lawyers and the various consultants who often take over municipal planning meetings.

People like Brar, Reid and Cosimo represent the last line of defence to protect some of the most critical parts of Ontario that remain undeveloped.

But what happens when the whims of provincial leaders and the special interests they support run contrary to the responsibilities of a local councillor? Or go against the needs of the constituents who elected them to city hall?The decisions by Ford and his government to push through Bill 23, strip away power from municipal councils and remove 7,400 acres from the once protected Greenbelt came weeks after the October municipal election, forcing many newly elected councils to either learn complex planning and land use policy on the fly, or succumb to the whims of people who don’t represent their community’s best interests.

To do their job effectively, local councillors rely on the expertise of staff members inside city hall. Their recommendations and reports distill and analyze important information to help elected officials make the best decisions on behalf of the residents who expect to be represented. Ford has upended this system. Planning and finance staff in municipalities across Ontario have scrambled to understand the implications of the PC government’s unprecedented move to curtail municipal authority in order to dramatically expand urban boundaries for sprawl-style development.

Trying to educate council members with zero experience is the monumental task facing staff, who themselves are struggling to understand the changes being forced upon cities and towns.

“Bill 23 represents the single most significant transformation of Ontario’s planning system that I’ve seen in my 36-year career in the field,” Paul Lowes, the president of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI), stated in a written submission to the Province.

The OPPI, which includes roughly 4,600 planners, is supportive of the PC government’s goal to solve the housing affordability crisis, but has significant concerns with the new legislation. The removal of power from conservation authorities, which are mandated to support local councils as part of their shared responsibility to protect watersheds and sensitive ecosystems, was a key criticism.

“Municipalities are kind of going in blind in rural areas, especially in places outside of the GTA, a lot of the municipal councils don’t have the expertise, or the funds to be able to have staff that will do the job that conservation has already,” Margaret Prophet, Executive Director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition (SCGC), said.

When development applications are brought to conservation authorities, they pass through multiple hands before receiving approval. Conservation authorities are staffed with a variety of experts including biologists, hydrologists and GIS technicians who are well versed in the geography of the area. Hiring this kind of staff at local municipalities would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is where the SCGC comes in.

Prior to the 2018 municipal election, Prophet and her colleagues at the SCGC saw a need to fill a gap within the municipal political system. It seemed as if there was a disconnect in the community. Organizations and leaders were not always acting in the best interest of the people they served.

Out of this, the Community Leaders for a Sustainable Simcoe (CLASS) was created; a collection of community organizations who pledge to act in the best interest of the people they serve, with a strong focus on sustainable communities and the environment.

It is arguable that with the recent passing of Bill 23 and the changes to the Greenbelt legislation, the importance of having municipal leaders who know how to take action on these environmental issues is increasing now more than ever. But the problem is council members, especially new council members, are often ill informed on issues of importance to their communities. In today’s political climate, a heavy reliance on city staff is not always the answer as more and more become tainted by outside interests.

“There was more of a need and more of a request from local councillors to get involved,” Prophet said.

As a result, the SCGC began working with EcoSpark, an environmental charity that focuses on connecting people to their local natural environment through education, to host events province wide that served as an educational tool for councillors on issues of importance often relating to the natural world.

In the aftermath of Bill 23, at the end of November, the SCGC hosted their very first event (featuring former MP and mayor of Toronto David Crombie) a webinar which brought together municipal leaders from across the province.

“We talked a lot about what does leadership look like now in a void of provincial support in a lot of ways? What does it mean to have an agenda that you want to be climate focused and environmentally focused?” Prophet said. “But when it came to audience questions, by and large, a lot of municipal councilors were like ‘what are we going to do about Bill 23? How do we respond to it? How do we maintain autonomy as a municipal council? How do we best represent our constituents?’”

These are questions that have come up in council chambers across the province since the Ford government blindsided Ontario with piece after piece of legislation. It is not uncommon for councils to whip through hard discussions, taking everything presented by staff at face value and voting as a group. However, it is no longer sufficient for those on council to instinctively take recommendations from staff without asking the important questions.

Debbie Gordon, of Save the Maskinonge, recalled attending council meetings with another advocate when working to protect the Oak Ridges Moraine and Greenbelt in York Region. She was astonished by the lack of education of the council members.

“I would go to council meetings and I could tell the councillors didn’t know what she was talking about,” she said. “They don’t know why it’s important. They believe you that you tell them it’s important. But they don’t know why it’s important.”

This is why Prophet’s work is so vital. She is striving to create a council where municipal leaders have the expertise to make these decisions in the best interest of their communities.

For years, conservation authorities have played a critical role for local officials, informing them about complex watershed management techniques and providing crucial information about applications for development in sensitive areas of their jurisdiction. Bill 23 dismantles this support system by cutting out conservation authorities from much of their traditional role, barring them from communicating with local officials and staff regarding development applications. The Bill also severely weakened the remaining power of these organizations — the PCs’ previous attack, Schedule 6, in 2020 left them gutted — and removes the ability of these watershed stewards to regulate or refuse development applications on the basis of “pollution” or “conservation of land”.

“We believe the proposed changes could negatively impact watershed management at a critical time when we need to do more to tackle the increasing impacts of climate change on our communities,” Lowes wrote in his submission to the Province.

One of the questions that has emerged is if not the conservation authorities, “who is going to do the work?” Who will be the body responsible for protecting the natural environment?

The answer is not clear cut, but it appears much of that responsibility will fall on individual municipalities. The problem: they do not have the resources or the expertise to protect some of the most critical ecosystems in the province.

Aside from the gutting of conservation authorities, there are other areas where Bill 23 will place a greater emphasis on the role of individual municipalities: downloading planning authority from upper-tier municipalities to lower-tier municipalities and changes to development charges.

On November 2, eight days after Bill 23 was first introduced, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) released a statement on its opposition to the legislation. “While AMO would like to support the province’s housing objectives, it cannot support changes that largely place the burden of carrying the costs associated with development onto municipalities”.

Under Bill 23, the planning authority of the Region of York, Peel, Durham, Halton, Niagara, Waterloo and the County of Simcoe will be removed. Lower-tier municipalities within these regions will be responsible for implementing the Region’s Official Plan as well as developing an Official Plan of their own, subject to the approval of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH). This has increased the responsibility of the municipalities tenfold.

“The Regional Official Plan, which has been approved with modifications by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, will become the responsibility of local municipalities in conjunction with their own Official Plans,” documents from the Region of Peel highlight. “The intent is that local municipal Official Plans will incorporate Regional Official Plan policies within their jurisdiction. In the interim, Planning Act decisions will be made by local municipalities having regard for both documents with the Regional Official Plan prevailing in the event of conflict.”

The same will ring true for the other six upper-tier municipalities whose planning authority will be removed.

“By removing the Region’s ‘planning responsibilities’ Bill 23 has the potential to eliminate the critical coordination function that the Region currently manages for the local municipalities within Peel. Failure to properly coordinate infrastructure delivery could have costly unintended consequences from both a planning and financial perspective,” the document continues.

Larger municipalities like Brampton and Mississauga have more capacity to undertake Planning Act responsibilities. They have a greater number of staff and more intellectual and financial resources. Smaller municipalities however, like Caledon, or even smaller ones like Tiny in Simcoe County with a population of just over 11,000, would not have the number of staff needed to ensure that not only these Official Plans are attended to, but are carried out in a sustainable manner.

Bill 23 will also impact development charges, fees collected by the municipality from builders to help pay for the cost of associated infrastructure such as roads, sewage systems, stormwater management etc. Under Bill 23, upper-tier municipalities will no longer be able to collect development charges. The Region of Peel estimates the revenue shortfall could be as much as $2 billion over the next decade. That could increase to as much as $6 billion if Bill 23’s housing targets are met.

Municipalities will not be able to collect development charges for affordable housing units. Without these revenue streams, municipalities will be strapped for the necessary funds needed to provide crucial infrastructure which could lead to higher tax costs, or the abandoning of affordable housing plans that taxpayers, ultimately, would have to pay for.

“What we worry about is that it’s going to result in fewer affordable housing solutions for people in this area and across the province,” Prophet said.

With municipalities juggling deficits, they are less likely to pay for the expertise and resources needed to handle additional responsibilities previously managed by conservation authorities.

In the days following COP15 in Montreal, which just concluded, municipalities are now facind global pressure to cooperate with other levels of government to protect biodiversity. Ford’s sweeping legislative moves have shown different levels of government are often at odds with each other on environmental issues.

Mississauga is one of two Ontario municipalities to sign the Montreal Pledge so far (along with Toronto) cementing its commitment to protecting biodiversity. While this is a positive step forward for the city, it places even greater responsibility on its elected officials, many of whom are brand new to the job and have next to no knowledge and little experience around these complex issues.

But suddenly, thanks to Doug Ford, they are the last gatekeepers of the environment.

“In a lot of ways [the changes under Bill 23] put more responsibilities on municipal councils,” Prophet said. “In some ways they take away their autonomy, and in a lot of ways they’ve reduced their ability to handle their responsibilities.”

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