Ominous Meeting Begins Growth Plan Consultations

On November 8, 2108, the newly elected Ontario government began a procedure to revise land use planning processes in Ontario. The setting was the “Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Stakeholders Forum” which was held at the Ontario Room of the MacDonald Block at 900 Bay Street in Toronto on November 8, 2018. Also in attendance was Sierra Club Ontario Chapter’s own Dr. John Bacher. (Photo shows Thundering Waters wetlands where offsetting scheme was tried in past. Development advocates at recent Growth Plan consultation by province urged wetland offsetting be permitted by change to provincial regulation.) 

The forum, with approximately 200 participants, had previously been discussed with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, (AMO). It was far noisier than most government consultations on land use planning; with buzzers frequently telling table panels when their time was up. The celebratory tone used by the facilitator resembled that of an auctioneer.

Planners from the Waterloo region attempted to push discussions in a more environmentally sensitive manner, as they alone stressed issues of climate change and facilitating conservationist land securement.

Most of those in attendance in the forum were municipal planners and planners who work with the land development industry. Dr. John Bacher appeared to be the only “stakeholder”, representing an environmental protection group. Even though he is, first and foremost, a researcher for the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society (PALS), he received the invitation as Chair of the Ontario Chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada.

The forum was the basis for launching a new consultation paper on the Growth Plan. While the Growth Plan should, according to statute, be reviewed every ten years, discussions at the Forum suggest that the time involved in making changes will be less than that. It may take place after two additional consultation meetings in less than a year.

A number of disturbing aspects of the proposals can be found in the section termed “Settlement Area Boundary Expansions.” Rather than being explicitly termed government proposals, they were more ambiguously termed “What We Heard from You” and “What Some of You Proposed.”

Under “What We Heard from You”, the following quote can be found: “The new criteria and process for justifying a settlement boundary expansion are seen as overly focused on process rather than outcome (e.g. Specifying the number of studies required) and that there are concerns about how long it could take to make new land available for development.”

Under “What Some of You Proposed”, two specific proposals were put forward. The first being: “The process for settlement boundary expansions should be streamlined”, and the second for there to be: “the opportunity for some settlement area boundary expansions to occur in between municipal comprehensive review cycles (subject to criteria).”

Among the most troublesome proposals unveiled at the Forum was for settlement boundary expansions to take place sooner than the five-year comprehensive review cycle. Meanwhile, a major reform in land use planning initiated 15 years ago through changes to the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), was that urban boundary expansions can only be made following a five-year comprehensive review. Before this long overdue reform, there was land use planning chaos on the urban fringe. Even after detailed scrutiny through expert testimony and hearings by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), urban boundary expansions that had been debated for decades could suddenly be reversed through a new application. Then the process would start all over again with the hope of being heard by a favourable OMB hearing officer.

Ominous darkness in forest reflects gloomy prospect of Municipal Bar (lawyers) demanding repeal of Bill 137 so they can revive bad song and dance of cross examination of experts in hearings. Photo by Martin Munoz, Thundering Water Forest.

(Ominous darkness in forest reflects gloomy prospect of Municipal Bar (lawyers) demanding repeal of Bill 137 so they can revive bad song and dance of cross examination of experts in hearings. Photo by Martin Munoz, Thundering Water Forest.) 

The purpose of the Growth Plan is to create a land use planning system for high growth pressure area, like the Greater Golden Horseshoe, that is more restrictive than the minimal standards of the Planning Act and its PPS. To change this reality would simply defeat this purpose. There would be no sense in having a Growth Plan that is more permissive in terms of urban boundary expansions than the Planning Act and the PPS. In fact, it would pave the way for more corrosive changes to the Planning Act and the PPS. Urban sprawl would spread like cancer across Ontario.

In addition to the proposed Provincial government changes at the Forum, there were comments from developers and municipal planners. These were made both in the form of presentations from the tables present and as ten-second clips which were termed quick comments for the Minister of Municipal Affairs.

A frightening array of suggestions were made by Forum participants. One such suggestion was the abolishment of the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC). Such “sun-setting” was suggested as well as a ten second Ministerial plea that the Escarpment Plan be administered by municipalities.

There was no opportunity in the Forum to illustrate the problems in municipal administration of Greenbelt rules in the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Protected Countryside of the Greenbelt. Rampant issues like illegal dumping in the Escarpment Plan area were only rectified through NEC clean up orders. Additionally, the much greater success of the NEC plan to extend forest cover in the Escarpment Plan area was also ignored.

Another call by developers’ agents was the repeal of Bill 137, which created the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT). There was a lament for the “good old days” of the OMB, claiming the new system gave less weight to expert witnesses. Such claims ignored how the major reform in the LPAT process is the abolition of expert cross examination. This will reduce the role of lawyers, not experts. The Forum strongly reflected the views of the Municipal Bar, a powerful special interest group.

Another cry that arose was that the “White Belt” lands adjacent to the Greenbelt be given a new status in the revised Growth Plan. It was urged that these lands be formally designated as an “Urban Reserve.” This would have various negative impacts, encouraging severe storm water pollution due urbanization of these lands, which are primarily, Class One and Two agricultural lands. Development here could seriously degrade the Don, Humber, Rouge, the Credit, and Carruthers Creek.

The most worrisome of the Forum calls was the advocacy of wetland offsetting and a greater role for Conservation Authorities in land use planning. The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority have recently been condemned by the Ontario Auditor General for their unjust work. Her report noted that their studies to justify offsetting at Thundering Waters in Niagara Falls (now under appeal by Dr. John Bacher himself) lacked any field research.

What makes the call for considering wetland offsetting so outrageous is that it was made after the disastrous impact of the Houston USA Flood, where its death toll was augmented by the paving over of previously protected wetlands through offsets. Most of these offsets were outright fraud. Funding for offsets were paid to firms to design recreated wetlands, which were never actually constructed.

Buzz bells do not generate good policy. If there is to be any revision to the Growth Plan, it should be done only after ample studies are published, which is not the case. These should look at matters such as the existing capacity of urban boundaries, and the potential harm that could be triggered by the urbanization of the “White Belt” lands.

 Original article was written by Dr. John Bacher, Chair and Greenbelt Campaign leader at Sierra Club Ontario. Check out his site here.

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