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17th March 2024
...continued from Part 1

New Conservation Authorities Act rules give developers more power to appeal permit denials

Before Bill 23, each of Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities was governed by its own regulations. The Ford government consolidated those regulations to ensure consistency, limiting the authorities’ focus to natural hazard prevention instead of overall watershed health. Cade said this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t consider that rural and urban conservation authorities have different environmental landscapes and issues.

“As we try to create some ubiquitous landscape in terms of legislation, you risk losing local knowledge and scientific expertise and local characteristics of the natural world each of us is regulating,” Cade told The Narwhal.

“What I oversee is very different than the Greater Toronto Area.The development pressures are different.” His current concerns include gentrification, as small cottages on the Lake Huron shoreline morphing into big, permanent homes, and increased construction of large-scale migrant worker housing on farms.

The Narwhal reached out to all 36 authorities and heard back from 11, all of which were scrambling to understand the impacts of this latest round of changes and quickly implement them over the next three weeks. That includes redoing public maps to show the new buffer zones and identify floodplains, as well as revamping permit applications.

It’s a hefty job, they all say.

“We accept the changes but April 1 is a pipe dream,” Doug Hevenor, head of Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority, which oversees the region south of Georgian Bay, said. “Five years, we’ve played a changing game: reload and reunderstand. And we’re still playing it now.”

In addition to empowering the minister to greenlight development, the new Conservation Authorities Act regulations have changed the scope of what an authority can consider in reviewing development applications. It also speeds up their timeline.

The regulations still allow conservation authorities to consider the impacts of development on flooding, erosion and beaches to minimize harm to people and property. However, they can no longer consider the impact of development on water pollution at all, even though a key function of healthy wetlands is water filtration.

And while some conservation authority powers have increased, developers also have new powers: they can request a minister’s review on a permit denial or conditions. They can also appeal decisions, or the failure to make one within 90 days, at the Ontario Land Tribunal. Appeals can now centre on disputing studies used by conservation authorities in making a decision.

While some disputes might be handled more efficiently now, authority staff say, others could delay development instead of speeding it up. Altogether, the changes may make decision-making “more piecemeal and arbitrary,” Bowman said. “It’s going to result in a weirdly arbitrary, narrow process.”

Still, many conservation authority heads are trying to stay “cautiously optimistic.”

“Hopefully this was the last change for a while,” Baldwin said. “We’ve never been against the government trying to facilitate infrastructure or building homes. Our mandates are supportive of each other.”

“These regulations might be a new status quo. And we’ll figure it out — because we have to.”

— With files from Emma McIntosh

Update March 7, 2024, at 3:53 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Tim Byrne, head of Essex Region Conservation Authority.