Bill 229 will curtail mandate of conservation authorities

 In Opinion

The provincial government is using the cover of omnibus Bill 229 to sidestep public consultation on proposed amendments to the Conservation Authorities Act (CAA). These amendments to the CAA will significantly curtail the mandate of Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities, including our own Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA). Bill 229 is just one in a growing trend to use omnibus budget measures bills to make substantive changes to environmental laws.
The NVCA has been working through Conservation Ontario to find common ground with the various ministries on operational efficiencies, improved client-centred service delivery initiatives and access to much needed sustainable funding. In a surprise move last week, the government invoked a time allocation motion to terminate all further consideration on Bill 229 until passage, expected by mid-December. The Bill contains 44 separate pieces of legislation, largely related to COVID-19 budget measures and the amendments to the CAA.
In plain words, the province is fast tracking the Bill, due in large part to measures related to COVID-19. The Bill is now proceeding to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs.
Reforming how we protect our watershed should not be relegated to a small part of a big bill on the premise that it is just another piece of red tape to be cut in favour of more growth.
In fact, the personal constraints imposed on us by the pandemic have literally bought home to us the need to continually re-affirm and enhance the health of our natural environment and how important it is to our own peace of mind.
If enacted as proposed, the amendments outlined in Schedule 6 of the Bill will remove and/or significantly reduce the conservation authorities’ role in regulating development in environmentally sensitive areas, participation in permit and planning appeals and participation in the review and appeal of municipal planning applications.
As well, the province, through the issuance of a Minister’s Orders, will be allowed to make top-down decisions on permit appeals and issue permits without the science-based, watershed data and expertise from the conservation authorities. Alternatively, or in addition to, applicants will be able to appeal directly to their Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT), potentially adding greater expense and upwards to 200 days to the application process.
As well, the province proposes to change the accountability of municipal representatives on conservation boards. They will be told to make decisions in the best interest of their respective municipalities only and not those of the conservation authority whose board they serve on. This change would limit the ability of the conservation authority boards to address watershed-wide environmental/resource management issues in a time of increasing climate change.
As you read through these amendments, ask yourself who will speak with authority for the environment? Is the voice of those who currently seek to ensure the safety of our water supply, to prevent flooding and to protect the natural habit of our streams, rivers and lakes getting stronger or weaker?
As a member of the NVCA board responsible for the oversight of the NVCA staff and accountable to the conservation authority, I feel strongly that reforms to the CAA should be proposed as a separate, comprehensive piece of legislation and considered in the full light of public awareness and consultation. The province should remove the amendments relating to the Conservation Authorities Act from Bill 229 and introduce any such changes to the CAA as standalone legislation through the Environmental Registry as prescribed in Section 33 of the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 (EBR) , thereby allowing municipalities, conservation authorities and the public to participate in a constructive decision-making process with the Province. The public ought not to be silenced.
To that end, at Monday’s council meeting, I asked council for their careful assessment of whether the method and haste being deployed by the province with respect to the proposed changes to the CAA is fair, transparent and with due regard for the environmental management and protection of our natural heritage and the safety of our residents. I asked that Clearview Township ask the province to remove the amendments to the CAA from Bill 229.
Council decided to reject my request and to rely on the province to do the right thing for the Nottawasaga Valley watershed.
Something as fundamental as the management and protection of our natural heritage and source water supply deserves a more transparent and collaborative review than the treatment proposed in Bill 229.
Any member of the public can comment. I would urge you to contact the township, and your local MPP as soon as possible.
Write to: Committee Clerk,  Attention: Julia Douglas, Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, 99 Wellesley St. W., Room 1405, Whitney Block, Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON. M7A 1A2.The deadline for submitting written comments is 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 2.

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