Bill 23 would upend planning approval process

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Bill 23 proposes to alter 10 provincial laws in order to accelerate the construction of new homes in Ontario.

The More Homes Built Faster Act, tabled to the legislature on Oct. 25, aims to advance the province’s goal of adding 1.5 million homes in the coming decade.

Municipalities and other agencies are reviewing the Bill to assess implications and are submitting comments as the omnibus bill moves through a second reading process. Those affected are voicing questions and concerns about the significant changes that will upend the way development is approved in the province.

Changes are proposed for legislation relating to municipal planning, Conservation Authorities, development charges, Ontario Land Tribunals, and heritage, with the goal of removing barriers to construction.

A Planning Act amendment provides for two different classes of upper- tier municipalities, those which have planning responsibilities and those which do not. Various amendments are proposed to provide lower-tier municipalities “with planning functions where, for municipal purposes, they form part of an upper-tier municipality without planning responsibilities.”

County of Simcoe planning department would be removed from the development approvals process, eliminating the county’s Official Plan, allocating more approval powers to lower tier municipalities, and limiting avenues for appeal through Ontario Land Tribunals.

“County staff are deeply concerned that if Bill 23 is passed as currently proposed, a variety of significant unintended consequences will actually have the opposite effect and will delay or obstruct the construction of additional housing supply at the scale that is desired,” states a Nov. 8 report. “Through Bill 23, the province is proposing to amend the Development Charges Act (DCA) and the Planning Act in a way that removes DC eligible services and costs, exempts certain development from the payment of DCs, Parkland Dedication Fees and Community Benefits Charges, and mandates a phase-in of new DC rates for all development (including commercial, industrial and institutional growth). Virtually all of the proposed changes to the DCA result in less DC revenue collected by municipalities to fund the costs of growth-related infrastructure that supports new housing and commercial and industrial development. The initial estimated impact to the County of Simcoe is a loss of at least $175 million in development charges over the next 10 to 15 years.”

During the last meeting of the current term of council, outgoing councillor Thom Paterson expressed concerns about the proposed changes.

“Ontario’s municipalities have been caught off guard by the introduction of Bill 23, the latest in a series of Bills that lower environmental protection, reduce regional planning and restrict public engagement,” Paterson told The Echo. “This legislation is passing quickly through provincial parliament, just as our new Clearview council is taking office and before staff can comprehensively review the impacts of the new Bill, ask for further clarifications and make any substantial comments on the proposed changes.”

A new section of the Development Charges Act creates exemptions from development charges for the creation of affordable and attainable residential units, non-profit housing developments and inclusionary zoning (requiring affordable housing).

Critics caution that reducing development charges will create long- term barriers to building infrastructure to support new construction, such as water and sewer supply.

“Initiatives that result in offering more Ontarians greater access to housing, in all forms, is something that should be strongly considered. It is critical however, that actions to bring new housing to market quickly will not compromise the quality of our communities, and do not simply shift the burden of growth-related capital expenses and infrastructure on to existing property taxpayers,” reported county staff. “Despite any changes that may result from Bill 23, the long- standing concept that growth pays for growth should be upheld. Shifting fiscal responsibility for growth-relatedinfrastructure to the existing taxpayer will become a deterrent for building more homes.”

County staff say shifting the burden of paying for the cost of development to the property taxpayer through reduced or eliminated DCs may in fact slow down, and even prevent critical social housing projects from being completed throughout the county and in other parts of the province. There is concern that this will have a direct counter- productive impact on the goal of getting this form of housing built and that the total cost of housing will increase due to higher property taxes and user rates.

Changes to the Conservation Authorities Act would open conservation lands to development, remove commenting and approval authority on certain matters, remove pollution control as an approval factor, and change the evaluation system for provincially significant wetlands. “The most impactful changes are being made to the Conservation Authorities Act. The environmental responsibilities of Conservation Authorities (CA), including the NVCA to regulate or prohibit development that negatively impacts rivers and wetlands will be greatly diminished. Municipalities would no longer be required to seek expert advice from CA’s on environmental and natural heritage matters. Environmental planning on a watershed level would be replaced by a patchwork of municipality-by- municipality varying approaches,” said Paterson. “Environmental protections do not have to be set aside by the Province to address Ontario’s growing housing crisis.”

A statement from the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA) says, “Under the current wetland evaluation system, the Nottawasaga Watershed is home to the internationally significant Minesing Wetlands, 33 provincially significant wetlands (PSW), 34 important but non-provincially significant wetlands and several of the unevaluated wetlands that would likely become provincially significant if they were evaluated. If the new legislation is passed, the evaluation score of the Minesing Wetlands will be greatly diminished, and many wetlands, including the Mad River portion of the complex will not meet PSW status.”

“The proposed changes are signalling that municipalities will be responsible for protecting people and property from natural hazards and the evaluation of wetlands,” said NVCA chair Mariane McLeod. “Conservation Authorities work on a watershed basis. If municipalities are directed to take on this task, we would need to consider how development in one municipality impacts the ones adjacent or downstream of them. We just don’t have the staff or expertise in water resources engineering, environmental planning and regulatory compliance for the Conservation Authorities Act to do that. We need to keep all hazard-related responsibilities with NVCA.”

Criticism is being voiced for the restriction of conservation authorities, even though they have been a source of frustration and for developers and individual homeowners alike.

Mulmur Mayor Janet Horner is joining the NVCA board in the next term of council and said yes, township staff and residents have been frustrated with a perceived overreach by the conservation authorities, and lengthy turnaround time on approvals.

“Some of this might be a bit of a reset,” said Horner. “On the other hand, with Bill 23, and the government indicating that they may be able to go in and do development on wetlands, on natural heritage features, and floodplains, I’m sorry have we learned nothing?” Under the Planning Act conservation authorities will be able to comment on natural hazards for new developments, but there is a proposal to exempt developments that have historic Planning Act approvals from natural hazard permits. Conservation authorities will also be prohibited from commenting on natural heritage, and select aspects of stormwater management reviews. Horner said developing in those areas will certainly cause grief down the road, as the affects of climate change increase. “In many ways they are downloading the responsibilities that the CAs have had,” said Horner. “The municipal staff is not necessarily equipped to ensure that the site is appropriate.”

She points out, there has been a tremendous amount of work done with regard to source water protection, which will no longer be part of the mandate unless the municipalities pay more for it.

“And that doesn’t have anything to do with keeping our water clean, safe and cool and that’s problematic,” said Horner. “I think we’re going to be big losers on this thing. I think some of the things, we took for granted.”

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