‘Filled with error and hazard’: Why Hamilton is taking on Doug Ford’s changes to conservation authorities

The Tories want to update legislation governing conservation authorities. Advocates — and Hamilton city council — say that the changes will make it harder to protect the environment
By Justin Chandler - Published on Dec 03, 2020
 Hamilton’s Dundas Valley Conservation Area spans 1,200 hectares. (Justin Chandler)

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HAMILTON — Last month, Ontario proposed changes to the legislation that governs conservation authorities. Last week, Hamilton urged the Tories to scrap them.

Conservation authorities manage watersheds — areas that separate bodies of water that flow to a central point. According to Conservation Ontario, a healthy watershed “provides safe drinking water, food, enables us to adapt to the impacts of climate change more easily by cooling the air and absorbing greenhouse gas emissions, and provides natural areas for people to enjoy and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.”

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Under the Conservation Authorities Act, such authorities have a mandate to protect people and property from flooding, as well as to conserve natural resources. 

If the province gets its way, doing so will become harder, says Hamilton councillor Lloyd Ferguson, who also chairs the board of the city’s conservation authority and moved the November 25 motion opposing the changes.

According to Ferguson, the new rules would, among other things, take away conservation authorities’ powers to expropriate land and issue stop-work orders under serious circumstances — and make it easier for developers to appeal their rulings. As the province’s changes were put forth earlier this month as amendments in the omnibus Bill 229, there will be no public debate.

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a path through grass and trees
Conservation authorities have a mandate to protect people and property from flooding and to conserve natural resources. (Justin Chandler)

“We're concerned it'll put at risk our wetlands and our community,” Ferguson told his fellow councillors Wednesday, speaking on behalf of the Hamilton Conservation Authority board. Hamilton’s mayor, Fred Eisenberger, said the province’s changes are “filled with error and filled with hazard.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks told TVO.org via email that the proposals are based on “extensive consultations” and “will improve the governance, oversight and accountability of conservation authorities while respecting taxpayer dollars by giving municipalities more say over the conservation authority services they pay for.”

As Ferguson’s motion notes, 58 per cent of the HCA’s funding is self-generated; of the remainder, 37 per cent comes from the City of Hamilton, 2 per cent from the Hamilton Conservation Foundation, 2 per cent from the province, and 1 per cent from the Township of Puslinch.

Although Ontario’s contribution is comparatively small, the province does have the authority to make these changes, as conservation authorities were established by a provincial act. “Back in the ’90s, they contributed 50 per cent,” Ferguson says. “They continue to cut back our funding, but now they're trying to dictate to us how we should be operating.”

Conservation Ontario, the non-profit association that represents the province’s 36 conservation authorities, has also criticized the government’s proposed changes, as have local authorities and municipalities around Ontario.

Currently, people submit appeals to an authority’s board; under the new system, appeals will go to a local tribunal. The environment minister will be able to overturn authorities’ decisions, and developers will have the option to appeal to the minister.

“Conservation authorities could still provide advice/support to municipalities and the Province for appeals of Planning Act decisions — increasing accountability, consistency and transparency by streamlining the land use planning process,” the ministry said.

In a November 19 letter to Environment Minister Jeff Yurek, the London Development Institute, a business-development service, praised the proposed changes. “These changes as well as other proposed amendments will bring accountability, fairness, and defined expectations to mandatory programs of CA’s [conservation authorities] regarding development applications,” wrote executive director Mike Wallace.

a lake at dusk
The province contributes 2 per cent of the Hamilton Conservation Authority’s funding. (Justin Chandler)

Ferguson, though, says he sees no problems with the current appeals process: the only appeal hearing in 2020, he notes, was decided in favour of the applicant. There have been five such appeals since 2011.

The councillor is also concerned about changes to the governance structure of conservation authorities. Currently, boards are made up of citizen appointees; after the legislation comes into effect, those positions will be open only to elected councillors. The ministry says this will improve accountability; Ferguson, however, says it will result in a loss of diverse expertise and increase councillors’ workloads. “All members of council sit on numerous committees,” he says. “And you can't possibly put the time into doing proper research.”

Don McLean, spokesperson for climate-action group Hamilton 350, says he worries the loss of citizen appointees will mean that the HCA and other conservation authorities will become little more than council subcommittees. Citizen appointees, he adds, are less likely to be swayed by political considerations: “There isn’t the money factor of ‘you get extra taxes for a pipeline running through the area.’”

And one proposed governance change could permanently affect the makeup of the HCA board. Under Bill 229, board-chair and vice-chair positions would have to be shared among the municipalities that boards represent. As the HCA board has one representative from the Township of Puslinch, that could mean that a Puslinch member would hold the position of chair or vice-chair in perpetuity — and that while contributing only 1 per cent of the HCA’s funding. “They obviously weren’t thinking when they put this together,” Ferguson says of the province. (The ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this issue.)

Lisa Burnside, the HCA’s chief administrative officer, notes, though, it won’t be clear how the proposed changes will be applied until the province has released its regulations. “I hope this isn’t just the beginning,” she says, adding that the changes would “reduce our ability to protect the natural environment in our watershed.”

A vote on the Bill 229 is expected later this month.

McLean says that while the changes are “certainly appealing to the developer,” they are “not in the public interest.” Ultimately, he says, they would mean that authority was left in the hands of fewer people. “That’s a stupid way to run a complex government.”

With files from Mary Baxter.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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