‘We shouldn’t be building houses in floodplains’: Critics sound concern over Ford government’s plan to explore building homes in conservation lands
New homes are built in a housing construction development in the west-end of Ottawa on Thursday, May 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Published Friday, October 28, 2022 5:04PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, October 29, 2022 6:29AM EDT
This week the Ford government proposed sweeping changes to housing regulations and planning to try and speed up housing development, but some of the proposals have sparked concern that the government is moving to gut environmental protections around development.
The proposed legislation includes changes to the province’s 36 conservation authorities, which currently manage environmental concerns around future developments. They would no longer be able to consider factors like pollution and conservation of land when weighing a proposal. The province also wants to look at building homes on some of the protected lands they hold.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner slammed the plan after it was released.
“Narrowing the scope of conservation authorities puts people’s property at risk,” Schreiner told reporters. “The bottom line is people, we shouldn’t be building houses in floodplains. That’s kind of obvious. I mean, look what’s happening in the east, Atlantic Canada right now. Look what’s been happening in British Columbia, with people losing property. Conservation Authority rules were brought in for a reason and undermining those protections puts people’s houses, homes at risk.”
On Friday, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority Board passed a resolution to formally ask the province to scrap the parts of its bill which seek to limit the jurisdiction of conservation authorities, and to strengthen the definitions of watercourses and wetlands instead of narrowing them.
“Municipalities rely on our comments in the planning process and our removal from this process along with weakened regulations will result in the destruction of forests, wetlands and creeks,” the organization said.
They cited their work to enable redevelopment of mixed-use communities in flood-vulnerable areas of the GTA, including the Toronto Waterfront and Lower Don Lands, as well as parts of Brampton, Vaughan, and Markham.
“If the government is successful in removing TRCA from these processes, this substantially increases the risk that development decisions will be made that put the lives of Ontarians, their properties, and critical infrastructure at risk, including new housing proposals in flood vulnerable areas,” they said.
Speaking with CP24 on Wednesday, Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark said he values the work of conservation authorities, but they should stick to focusing on climate change and flooding.
“We need our conservation authorities to focus on their core mandate and that’s natural hazards and flood protection just given the challenges of climate change that face our communities,” Clark said. “And we want to make sure as part of our consultation that we get rid of the duplication in terms of the (development approval) process. The process is long. There are many people involved in the process of getting a whole housing stock up and going.”
DEVASTATING HURRICANE PROMPTED ONTARIO TO BOLSTER CONSERVATION AUTHORITIES
Conservation authorities, which are funded mainly through municipalities and donations, are responsible for managing local watersheds, as well as considering and approving development proposals that could have an impact on the local environment.
The conservation authority concept is unique to Ontario in Canada. The organizations started forming in the 1940s and after Hurricane Hazel killed 81 people in Ontario in 1954, the province gave conservation authorities the power to acquire lands for recreation and conservation purposes and to regulate that land for the safety of the community.
In addition to limiting the conservation authorities’ ability to block development for environmental reasons, the government is also looking to open up some of their protected lands for new housing.
“They’re also the second largest land owners, second only to the Crown (in Ontario),” Clark said. “So we want to work with them to see if there’s some conservation lands that might be better used for housing.”
Clark pointed out that “we’re going to have tremendous growth over the next decade and our housing starts need to keep up. More homes built faster is going to do that for us.”
While the availability of housing — particularly affordable housing — is a strong concern for many residents, observers point out that proper stewardship of our environment will be critical over the coming decades as well, especially as climate change continues to reshape weather patterns.
“I think, you know really, we have to ask ourselves; what is affordability today and what is affordability in the long term?” Angela Coleman, general managing of Conservation Ontario, told CP24.com. “Because if we make mistakes on the developments that we’re approving, we all know that the consequences of those, whether it’s flooding or whether it’s other issues we’re seeing further down the road.”
Coleman, whose group represents Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities, pointed out that following major flooding in the province in 2017 and 2019, Ontario hired an independent flood commissioner who found that conservation authorities had played an important role in helping to mitigate the flooding, which otherwise might’ve been worse.
She said protecting the natural environment in some cases is the easiest way to avert future disasters.
“Imagine that you have a property that’s ready for development. Part of it has a wetland on it. At this point in time, there may be situations where it’s appropriate to get rid of that wetland,” Coleman said. “But there also may be times where it’s more appropriate to leave that wetland in place because it does a good job of managing waters that would flow across the site. Basically, it’s the cheapest, most effective and probably most aesthetic way to keep floodwaters controlled on a site.”
Developing some of those lands may also not be as simple as it might seem. Some of them were secured through complex negotiations or donations.
“I don’t think it’s the government’s intention to look at all the lands in a way that would be compromising, but this is something to keep an eye on for all Ontarians because these lands are part of our collective public trust, to make sure that we have conservation lands and make sure that lands that are unsafe for development are held in a way that protects us all.”
Within the GTA, the TRCA said, there isn’t much developable land to be found in its real estate portfolio.
“The conservation, enhancement, and integration of natural areas is of utmost importance given the impacts of urban development, intensification and the compounding effects of climate change, and there is little ability for TRCA to achieve new housing developments on our land portfolio,” the group said.
“We do, however, continually review our real estate holdings, in conjunction with our partner municipalities, to determine whether any non-environmentally sensitive lands could support housing, infrastructure or other community uses.”
A ‘DISASTROUSLY BAD IDEA’
While Coleman said conservation authorities are working “in good faith” with the province, others were less diplomatic in their responses to the proposed legislation this week.
“It’s a disastrously bad idea,” Councillor-elect Dianne Saxe told CP24.com.
The newly-elected councillor for Ward 11 University-Rosedale was also the last environmental commissioner for Ontario before the post was abolished by the Ford government in 2019.
“Weakening the conservation authorities just as climate change gets worse is a recipe for more flooding, more drought, more water stress, huge cost going forward,” she said.
She said that wetlands, for example, are “essential and irreplaceable,” especially as climate change intensifies.
“We can see all around the world what climate change is already bringing; it brings more intense storms where you get more water at the time, which means the ability of wetlands to absorb water and release it slowly becomes more and more critical.”
She said there is “lots of room” for new homes within existing urban areas in the province without resorting to unsustainable sprawl development and said the push to open up protected lands for housing is “because there are developers who will make a lot of money in the short run and leave the consequences to everybody else.”
Developers in the province have long sought new parcels of land to build lucrative single-family homes and following the unveiling of the bill, the Ontario Real Estate Association – which represents the interests of realtors – glowingly praised the legislation as setting Ontario on track to become the “most pro-housing jurisdiction in Canada.”
Saxe also sounded concern that the bill fails to make housing a right and reduces development charges used by municipalities to pay for some of the necessary improvements, such as parks and sewers, necessitated by new developments.
Climate activist and former Toronto mayor David Miller called the proposals “terrible legislation” in a tweet and said the province has “no mandate to do it.”
Schreiner said “the bottom line is, we need conservation authorities to have the power and the ability to say it is unsafe to build a home in this location.”
While Coleman acknowledges that building more housing is important, she said she wants people to keep in mind that whatever decisions we make now about how to do that will have lasting implications.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day in Ontario, we’ve come to expect that our communities are safe. We’ve come to expect that when we buy a house, certain checks and balances have taken place,” she said. And with this stuff, you’re not going to see always the implications of this right away. And I think that’s the hard part right?
“The political cycle is different than planning decisions that go on for many, many years after them. So I think that’s important, and I just don’t want to lose sight of that.”