Seven members of the Ontario government's Greenbelt Council resigned over the weekend in protest of Premier Doug Ford's moves to limit the power of conservation authorities.
The Greenbelt Council is a government-appointed expert panel that advises the province on issues related to the Greenbelt, a stretch of protected land surrounding the Greater Toronto Area that Ford has promised not to develop. Chair David Crombie, a respected former Progressive Conservative MP and Toronto mayor, resigned Saturday night, with six more members following suit Sunday morning.
In their resignation letters, all seven cited the government's proposed changes to conservation authorities, agencies that oversee key watershed systems, some of which are in Greenbelt lands. Critics say if the bill passes, it would undermine the ability of conservation authorities to ensure development in floodplains happens safely. It could also take away the authorities’ ability to intervene in controversial cases, like that of a development in Pickering, Ont., that would pave over a protected wetland.
The last straw for Crombie came Friday, when the Ford government doubled down on its plans with a set of new amendments that would further chip away at conservation authorities’ power.
“They backed up a big truck and dumped a whole bunch of amendments that made it worse,” he told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview Sunday.
“The content of what they were doing was so important that I could not just let it pass… I felt that I had to resign.”
One change would allow the government to use a special mechanism called a Ministerial Zoning Order to force conservation authorities to approve developments, even if the agency had concerns about flooding risk. (The Ford government has come under fire in recent months for its increased usage of such orders, which override the local planning process and can’t be appealed.)
Another measure in the new rewrite would compel conservation authorities to make agreements with developers that would allow them to pay a fee in exchange for the destruction of endangered species habitat.
In a statement Saturday night, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark thanked Crombie for his service and noted that the chair's term was set to expire at the end of March 2021. And Sunday morning, Clark's office thanked the other six as well.
"For months we have been asking the Council for a detailed plan on how we can work together to expand the quality and quantity of the Greenbelt, as we committed to in the budget – yet there has been no progress," said Adam Wilson, a spokesperson for Clark.
More than half of Doug Ford's Greenbelt Council has resigned in protest of the Ontario government's plans to limit the powers of conservation authorities. #onpoli
"We look forward to new perspectives on the Council that are serious about our commitment to expand the quality and quantity of the Greenbelt."
In a statement Sunday, Ontario NDP climate critic Peter Tabuns called for the Ford government to reverse course on the changes before they become law.
“People have had enough of Ford working for powerful developers and not in the best interests of the province,” Tabuns said.
“The resignations of seven Greenbelt Council members should be seen as the sounding of a massive warning alarm: Ford’s attacks will have serious consequences for our climate and our environment.”
Ontario Liberal environment critic Lucille Collard said the “massive, overwhelming opposition” to the changes should give the government pause.
“What they’re doing is wrong,” she said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s one thing to not protect the environment, it’s another thing to destroy what we have.”
The six members who resigned Sunday are a developer, an environmental expert and a variety of planners. The list includes Credit Valley Conservation Authority chief administrative officer and scientist Deborah Martin-Downs, former Waterloo Region director of community planning Kevin Eby, veteran developer Leith Moore, urban planner Pamela Blais, University of Guelph rural planning professor Wayne Caldwell and planner Lynn Morrow.
The fact that such a range of people oppose the government’s plans is telling, said Tim Gray, the executive director of the green non-profit Environmental Defence.
“I think it just underscores how extreme this attack is on the environmental values of Ontario,” Gray said in a phone interview Sunday.
An eighth member of the Greenbelt Council, environmental biologist and land-use planner Linda Pim, resigned last month over the plans to develop the wetland in Pickering.
The members who resigned were appointed by the previous Liberal government, except Morrow, who was appointed by the Ford government in June. Six people remain on the council. All but one of them were appointed by the Progressive Conservatives.
Ford government introduced ‘aggressive’ new amendments Friday
There are 36 conservation authorities in the province. Mostly clustered in development-heavy southern Ontario, the agencies oversee watershed systems, managing flood control, water quality and permits for construction in areas near waterways.
Ontario created the authorities in 1946 after the province found that decades of poor planning had led to drought, deforestation, erosion and increased flooding. The current system was designed based on lessons learned in the wake of hurricane Hazel, which struck southern Ontario in 1954, killing 81 people and destroying homes built on flood-plains. Flooding and extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and intense in Ontario due to the climate crisis.
The Ford government introduced the changes to conservation authorities last month as part of Bill 229, an omnibus piece of legislation meant to enact measures laid out in the province’s 2020 budget last month. The proposal, laid out in schedule 6 of the bill, would allow the province to overrule conservation authorities to approve developments.
The government said the changes would streamline the land planning process, and make conservation authorities more transparent and accountable. Critics, however, said the new proposed rules would undermine conservation authorities’ ability to ensure development is done safely.
In a letter to Clark dated Nov. 19, the Greenbelt Council also raised concerns: “Any reasonable reading of the proposed legislation would see it as severely limiting the ability of (conservation authorities) to carry out their historic roles and undermining decades of environmental stewardship in Ontario.”
Friday’s rewrite undercut conservation authorities even more, Gray said.
“It was an arrogant, aggressive response to public concern,” he added.
The government has argued that the changes to conservation authorities specifically exclude lands in the Greenbelt.
Crombie said the real problem is much more subtle. The Greenbelt is inextricably connected to the lands that surround it — water runs where it needs to go, he said, and damage to the watershed planning system will harm the overall health of the area. He also said the changes threaten to silence public debate over developments.
“It may not be taking a chunk out of the Greenbelt… (but) you are basically draining away the value,” he said.
“The impact on the Greenbelt is very strong and it's beyond the Greenbelt as well.”
Council members raised concerns about changes made during pandemic
In their resignation letters, Crombie and the six other council members said they were worried about Bill 229’s effect on the environment.
“Clearly you do not value (the Greenbelt Council’s advice) and clearly your government does not value the role that conservation authorities play in public safety and environmental quality,” wrote Martin-Downs.
“I believed that being ‘in the tent’ was valuable and that I could contribute to good public policy that makes Ontario great. However, it is now clear that the Government’s direction... is a blatant assault on conservation, the environment and transparent governance. My time and efforts will be better spent protecting the environment and the health and safety of our communities.”
Eby wrote that it was “particularly troubling” the government would make such changes in the middle of a pandemic: “I cannot in good conscience continue in this role,” he said.
“This is a time when people are focused on livelihoods and their own personal health and safety,” wrote Caldwell.
Moore, the developer, said his decision was influenced by a “distinct lack of engagement” from the government on concerns raised by the council.
“More importantly, the policy direction taken by the government in Schedule 6 of Bill 229 has triggered my decision to remove myself from the Council,” Moore added.
“The steps taken in Bill 229 put decades of excellent work across city and regional boundaries at risk.”
Blais wrote that the government’s changes “are short-sighted and will likely generate other economic and environmental costs and risks.”
“The government’s actions do not constitute sound, evidence-based public policy nor serve the interests of Ontarians,” Blais added.
Morrow wrote that the changes amount to a “reckless gutting” of key protections.
“You put at risk the very ecosystems that sustain and protect Ontario’s Greenbelt,” she said.
“You shutter public discourse. This is not good for the environment, the community or the economy.”
Crombie said he resigned on Saturday to give the government time to reconsider Bill 229 before the legislature debates it Monday and Tuesday.
“There is the slight possibility that the government could still withdraw it,” he said. “I have no indication they’re going to do that.”
Since the Ford government has a majority, the legislation is likely to pass.