A Recap: Conservation Authorities, Land Use Planning & Minister’s Zoning Orders

Blog posted by Anastasia Lintner, Special Counsel, Healthy Great Lakes

It has been a wild ride since the Ontario government introduced Bill 229, the Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act (Budget Measures), 2020 on November 5, 2020.

You might need a recap.

You Spoke Up

First, thank you to everyone that took the time to raise your voice in support of conservation in Ontario.

In just over a month (Nov 5 to Dec 6), more than 45,000 calls or emails were sent to Members of Provincial Parliament. Almost 1,300 people attended a webinar on Nov 17, the recording of which was viewed more than 1,000 times.

In addition, there were at least 40 municipal resolutions, calling on the Ontario government to “remove Schedule 6” – the portion of Bill 229 that would amend the Conservation Authorities Act and the conservation authorities’ role in land use planning appeals under the Planning Act. A detailed summary of the response to Bill 229 up to Dec 6, 2020 is available in CELA’s open letter to Ontario’s MPPs.

What happened?

Although Bill 229 was a complex omnibus package, with over 40 schedules and impacting numerous pieces of legislation, Schedule 6 received an overwhelming share of the public response. Of the 45 deputations at the public hearings held by the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs, more than half were speaking about Schedule 6 – and no one spoke in favour.

In response, the Ontario government, with its majority in the Legislature, chose to significantly expedite the process, such that Bill 229 was passed and received Royal Assent on December 8, 2020.

Along the way, some amendments were made at the Standing Committee that partially addressed concerns being raised by CELA, conservation authorities, and many others. Those amendments were related to membership in conservation authorities and the conservation authorities’ role in land use planning appeals.

There was also a significant surprise. The government members of the Standing Committee introduced never before seen amendments in motions on December 3, which were to be debated less than 24 hours later. These proposed amendments were not debated in the Legislature, were not available for public response, and provided the other members of the Standing Committee barely time to review and debate. CELA’s analysis was made publicly available; otherwise, you may not have known it had even happened.

These amendments (which came immediately into force) require that conservation authorities issue authorizations associated with Minister’s Zoning Orders, regardless of whether doing so goes against their provincially-delegated responsibilities to protect people and property from natural hazards.

Conservation authorities in such a situation may impose conditions. However, any conditions may be challenged, reviewed, and changed by the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry. These changes are alarming and hamper conservation authorities from achieving the very job that they were created to do.

Finally, there remain many provisions within the Conservation Authorities Act that require regulations before they can be implemented. These include provisions related to the three categories of programs and services (mandatory, municipal, other), standards and requirements that will need to be met, and the permitting scheme (related to prohibited activities regarding watercourses, wetlands, etc.).

What’s next?

The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks has announced a Conservation Authority Working Group that has been tasked with considering the first phase of proposed regulations.

Disappointing news in the announcement: members of the Working Group are only drawn from municipalities, conservation authorities, agriculture, and development sectors. CELA will continue to monitor for public consultation on any forthcoming proposals, the first of which is anticipated to happen anytime now – “late January 2021” is suggested on MECP’s webpage.

Finally, there is an open public consultation regarding Schedule 17, Bill 197, with comments due January 30, 2021. The amendments made to the Planning Act (through Schedule 17, Bill 197) are already in law and provide for “enhanced authority” in Minister’s Zoning Orders. Regardless, we need to continue to exercise our rights to be involved in environmental decision-making, as guaranteed by Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Right, 1993. CELA’s submission, which identifies procedural problems and substantive deficiencies with the proposal, is available for you to use as you prepare your own comments.

For more in-depth information on how conservation authorities and Minister’s Zoning Orders are connected, and the importance of science-based planning to protecting Ontario’s clean water and air, check out this webinar hosted by Ontario Nature and Environmental Defence, with guest speakers David Crombie, former Chair of the Greenbelt Alliance, and Anastasia Lintner, Special Counsel, Healthy Great Lakes at CELA.