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Province strips away power of local conservation authorities

COVID-19 recovery bill contains amendments to Conservation Authorities Act which gives final say on permits to the province
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Conservation Sudbury general manager Carl Jorgensen. (File photo)

The Ontario government passed Bill 229 on Tuesday, including Schedule 6, which amends the Conservation Authorities Act, stripping power from local conservation authorities.

Schedule 6 is a small part of the province's omnibus COVID-19 recovery bill, Bill 229, and now gives final say on zoning and building permits and other environmentally sensitive issues to the province.

"At the local level it means that some decisions on permits, whether it's to issue a permit or repeal a permit or cancel a permit, some of those decisions could be made by the minister at Queen's Park," said Conservation Sudbury general manager, Carl Jorgensen.

"It doesn't mean that's going to happen with every permit. We're going to continue doing most of our business the way we have been, however if we get into a situation where it's a stalemate between the conservation authority and the person who has applied for the permit, it's possible that they can appeal to the minister and they can override us."

Ontario is home to 36 different conservation authorities, including Conservation Sudbury, and Jorgensen explained that they are not the environmental crusaders that some may think they are, but rather an organization that is in place to ensure the safety of people and their homes.

"It's not about the wetlands being protected or flood planes being protected; it's that these are hazardous areas," said Jorgensen. 

"The whole concept of our permits is to keep people safe and keep their property safe. You wouldn't want to build a building on an old wetland or an old meander where a river used to flow; staying away from those areas is a better choice and building in a preferred area outside of hazards."

The general manager of Conservation Ontario expressed her concern with the passing of Bill 229 and how it handed more power to the province in their ability to bypass conservation authorities.

“The Budget Bill is all about financial recovery from pandemic conditions and this could have easily been accomplished in ways that didn’t sacrifice Ontario’s environment and our unique watershed approach," said Kim Gavine, general manager of Conservation Ontario in a news release.

“A more proactive approach may have been to use this bill to support the development of a stream of new, greener economic activities that would boost the economy and help to build environmental resilience, not break it down.”

Conservation Sudbury works with the city in reviewing thousands of building permits annually, for everything from home builds, to home additions, to garages and swimming pools.

"There's certain things that we allow, that are built on engineering principles, that allow people to enjoy their homes, and most of the time we work with people and work it out with them and it's a good result," said Jorgensen.

"Out of those thousands, there are some where we say you need a Section 28 permit, which is an individual, more explicit permit where we go and visit them and talk with the contractor, with the engineer if they have one. It's the ones that are a little trickier that we can't just handle with a couple of comments a the bottom of a circulation sheet, and we're probably going to end up issuing about 75 of those in 2020."

Of the roughly 75 Section 28 permits that are issued annually, in the past six years that Jorgensen has been with Conservation Sudbury, just three of those have been appealed.

"Out of those, one was flat out denied because it was a bad idea and it just wasn't going to fly," said Jorgensen. "The other two we found some middle ground where they got part of what they wanted to, but the riskier part they couldn't do. For us it's a fairly rare occurrence with one every two years, and the one that got denied they didn't take it to the next level which would now be the LPAT."

The concern for Jorgensen is that with final authority now in the hands of the province, people who have their permits denied or are unsatisfied with the conditions of a permit now have a workaround to go over the heads of the conservation authority, potentially injecting politics into the decision-making, but also bogging down a system that was efficient.

"People who have exhausted their avenues locally can just take it straight to a minister or to the LPAT and it just bogs the whole system down," said Jorgensen. 

"We don't have a lot of staff. We have 10 people and a few more in the summer, so all of a sudden if staff are stuck dealing with appeals to the LPAT and preparing reports and presentations, guess what they're not doing, they're not issuing permits to the people."

Sudbury MPP Jamie West says that Schedule 6 of Bill 229 is an overreach by the province and that there's no way they have the resources to handle the day-to-day workload that conservation authorities take on.

"We don't know the work that they do. It's like the old saying that everybody thinks everybody else's job is super easy and it's a lot more complex than I would know, but the province doesn't have the resources to do this work," said West.

"There's 36 authorities across the province. I would say 70 per cent of the bills we discuss here have to do with Toronto, they're very municipally focused. I don't know sometimes that the premier knows that there's a Northern Ontario north of Bloor Street, so to really understand the local area. I know Sudbury because I grew up there  but I wouldn't know the intricacies of a place like Kitchener, for example. The people who are local would know it. It creates this weird situation where the minister gets to sort of rubber stamp these and the conservation authorities who have the data that says this is a bad idea, have to sign for it."

The issue of liability was raised by Jorgensen as well, who said that he still wasn't sure where the blame would fall in the event that the ministry gave the go-ahead on a permit and somewhere down the road something went terribly wrong.

"This whole permit process is going to mess things up, and one thing that's not clear is that the province is obviously not going to make the decisions based on the same reasons that led us to end up at a no, so what basis are they making their decisions on?" said Jorgensen.

"If they make a decision and issue a permit under our act, not on our behalf but right from the minister, then who owns the liability? Let's say it ends up in an error and 10 years later the foundation (of a home) is cracked."

Conservation Sudbury also conducts regular spot checks and monitoring on permits that they've approved, another duty that Jorgensen feels the province is not equipped to handle.

"Our staff will drive around and see how they're doing, check and make sure everything is being done within the conditions of the permit; if the province issues the permit who's doing that work?" said Jorgensen. 

"Who's checking up on this? It's like building inspectors who go in and check on projects. We're doing the same kinds of things, but looking at our stuff, looking at where the foundation is at, if you're far enough back from the water's edge like you said you were going to be, so we monitor this. If the province is issuing these permits and something goes wrong, who does it land on?"

West says that he sees things landing at the feet of conservation authorities when things go bad, leaving them to untangle the mess that could be created by the province.

Additionally, West was displeased with the way the bill was "driven through", and felt that the matters pertaining to the Conservation Authorities Act should have been tabled separately.

"It doesn't make sense in a bill about COVID-19 recovery," said West. "I've got more calls about this than about anything else since June from people who are frustrated by this and most of them are saying that if there's issues with the Conservation Authority then pull it out of the budget bill, don't put it as part of a giant omnibus bill. Table it in committee where people can talk about the pros and cons ... the fix was in from day one with this. The Conservative government knew what they wanted to do and they pushed it through as quickly as possible."