Tories’ bill could punch factory-sized holes in the Greenbelt

ANALYSIS: During the election, the Tories promised to protect the Greenbelt. But a bill set for debate next year breaks that promise, writes John Michael McGrath — and puts 7,200 square kilometres of protected land at risk
By John Michael McGrath - Published on December 7, 2018
an Ontario highway sign saying: Entering the Greenbelt
During the 2018 election campaign, the Tories promised to “protect the Greenbelt in its entirety.” (greenbelt.ca)

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Queen’s Park has shut down until February, but before MPPs headed home, the Progressive Conservative government introduced one final piece of legislation: Bill 66, the Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act. Its 12 schedules amend many different existing pieces of legislation relating to everything from farm regulation to labour law. But it also contains a ticking time bomb — one that threatens the Greenbelt, a 7,200-square-kilometre parcel of land that during the election the Tories promised to protect.

Bill 66 would allow municipalities to create “open for business” zoning bylaws (the phrase, a PC party slogan, is thus entrenched in the legislation). These would allow municipalities to bypass numerous existing pieces of legislation. The intent is to attract major employers to the province and allow them to speed through municipal-planning approvals for such developments as factories and office parks — the changes are not intended to speed the development of housing.

The only oversight would come in the form of the Minister of Municipal Affairs, who would need to approve bylaws passed by town and city councils.

But the Tories are willing to let municipalities bypass significant chunks of legislation: major water-protection acts (the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Protection Act, and Lake Simcoe Proctection Plan Act) and recent solid-waste-management law (2016’s Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act) would no longer apply to projects being approved under these new powers. The changes that are already ringing alarm bells in the environmental community, though, involve the province’s planning laws — the Metrolinx Act, the Places to Grow Act, and the Greenbelt Act could also be set aside for such projects. (All of the acts will still be in effect — including the Greenbelt — except when it comes to bylaws invoking these new powers. Normal bylaws that don't invoke the new powers will still need to comply with the acts.)

Those last two are key parts of sprawl-controlling measures that the Liberals enacted after winning in 2003 and refined after Kathleen Wynne became premier in 2014. The Greenbelt is one of the Liberal accomplishments that is still broadly popular — popular enough that, after then-candidate Doug Ford was caught on video musing about opening it up to developers for housing, the party beat a hasty retreat. In its 2018 platform, it promised to “protect the Greenbelt in its entirety.”

“The Greenbelt is the anchor of smart land use in southern Ontario and protects almost 2 million acres of farms, natural areas, and water sources,” says Tim Gray, executive director of the advocacy group Environmental Defence. “Opening it to development will set free rampant land speculation by developers, resulting in a loss of farmland and the disruption of farm communities. And it will undermine smart growth planning that’s aimed at increasing density to facilitate affordable housing and public-transit access.”

TVO.org contacted Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark to ask whether the government was reversing itself on the Greenbelt or considering other measures that would retain and protect it.

“Our government was elected with a commitment to streamline processes and cut red tape that has been choking the system for too long,” Clark said in an emailed response. “The aim is to have all provincial approvals in place within one year so qualifying businesses can begin construction. The jobs and investments generated by these projects would contribute to Ontario’s overall economic growth and competitiveness.”

Clark emphasized that the government remains “steadfast” in its defence of the Greenbelt, but he did not indicate what actions, if any, the government might take in the future to protect it.

And Bill 66 doesn’t simply bypass environmental and planning law — municipalities will not be required to notify the public or hold public hearings about “open for business” zoning bylaws. This raises an alarming prospect: a municipal council could, if its own procedural bylaws allowed it, introduce a motion in the middle of a council meeting — not permitting time for public questions or debate — vote in favour of it, and then send it off to the minister for approval. Such a bylaw would not be subject to appeal to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (formerly the Ontario Municipal Board) and could come into force 20 days later.

The government says that municipalities will be required to prove that the projects they greenlight using these new powers will lead to job creation, but the threshold won’t necessarily be high. The example the government has provided involves 50 new jobs for municipalities under 250,000 people: only eight of Ontario’s lower- or single-tier municipalities are larger than that. The minister will have the power to set other limits on the use of these zoning bylaws, but neither the bill nor the proposed regulation contains any suggestion of what shape such limits might take.

At this point, the Tories have simply introduced Bill 66; they haven’t started debating it in the legislature, and it hasn’t yet been the subject of committee hearings. Debate won’t even begin until the house resumes — MPPs are scheduled to return on February 19, 2019. It could still change, as could the regulations the government is proposing to implement if the bill passes at Queen’s Park. But, given the Tory majority in the house, some version of it is likely to receive royal assent before the end of the spring sitting next year. When that happens, Ontario could start seeing some big changes in areas that have been protected for nearly a generation.

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