Doug Ford

All the Ontario environmental protections Doug Ford wants to overhaul to build more houses

Aiming to reduce developers’ ‘regulatory obligations’ around Ontario’s parks, protected spaces and wetlands, the Ford government also wants to limit residents’ ability to object

Doug Ford’s government proceeded with a controversial plan to rapidly expand housing construction, despite receiving “confidential” warnings from public servants about sweeping environmental risks to parks, wetlands, conservation areas, farms and Indigenous territory. 

The warnings — included in an internal 117-page cabinet document marked “confidential” — shows an extensive list of concerns shared with Ontario’s 30 ministers ahead of the tabling of Bill 23, or the More Homes Built Faster Act. Along with numerous environmental impacts, they were alerted of the damaging implications of limiting who can challenge development as well as infringing on Indigneous rights and undermining municipal climate plans.

Initial details about the leaked internal document were first reported by QP Briefing. The document was sent to The Narwhal by multiple stakeholders, some of whom received it directly from government officials. It shows Ford’s government put significant weight into winning support for the bill from developers by moving to lessen obligations to build parks, protect watersheds and more. 

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The omnibus legislation is the centrepiece of a sweeping suite of changes, which the government is also using to tweak other bits of policy. The Ford government has said that these measures are needed to address Ontario’s housing crisis. 

Public servants cautioned these measures could have broad, serious consequences. For example, Ford’s proposal to weaken parkland requirements for new development could “impact the quality and use of parks,” the cabinet document reads. Changing wetland management “could result in loss of natural heritage features,” sections of land that allow plants and animals to move from one area to another. Other sections note that Indigenous communities could object to “implications on treaty and Aboriginal rights (wetlands and natural heritage).”

Despite this advance caution, the legislation the government tabled last week seems to codify these changes without major amendments. The bill is currently open for public consultation, including three public hearings being held in Brampton, Markham and Toronto this month — but stakeholders are concerned they weren’t consulted earlier.

Chief Kelly LaRocca of Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation — northeast of the Greater Toronto Area — told The Narwhal she’s “pretty upset” that the government pushed ahead despite knowing First Nations would object. Her nation has pushed to protect waterways in its territory from development.

“I’m deeply concerned about the fact that we are being willfully ignored,” LaRocca said.

An aerial photo of Carruthers Creek as it passes by homes and drains in Lake Ontario.
Carruthers Creek is seen from above as it winds through Ajax, Ont., to drain into Lake Ontario. Development along the creek has led to increased flood risks in Ajax, and the waterway is one that Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation has sought to protect. Photo: Toronto and Region Conservation Authority

Conservationists, planners and municipal staff told The Narwhal their takeaway is that development in the province would essentially be unrestricted if this legislation takes effect.

“It certainly feels like a death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach,” Rob Baldwin, chief administrative officer for Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, said in an interview with The Narwhal. 

Baldwin doesn’t believe the bill will result in truly affordable housing, as it will bring “increased inconsistencies and inefficiencies” to the development process, adding to the burden on municipalities to provide services — which in the end will have to be paid for by residents. 

“They talk about transformative change, but what they’ve proposed is a series of cuts across multiple levels that isn’t transformative,” he said. “When you create this level of chaos with this level of change, it creates a lot of uncertainty. What’s the end result? Is it housing at the environment’s peril? Potentially.”

In the week since the government released the legislation for comment, some conservation authority staff have expressed fear that it nullifies their role entirely. 

Additionally, on Friday, the Ford government broke a longstanding promise to keep Ontario’s Greenbelt intact when it revealed a plan to remove land from the protected area to build housing.

Housing development outside of Milton, Ont.
A housing development outside of Milton, Ont., in Halton Region. The Ford government’s recent flurry of changes to environmental protections is part of its plan to overhaul housing policy. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Despite the potential pitfalls listed in the internal document, the government “concluded that appeasing the development sector … was a worthwhile undertaking,” Michael Tolensky, chief financial and operating officer at the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, told The Narwhal in a written statement. “Legislation permitting developers to profit at the expense of long-term public safety and community resiliency is purposefully shortsighted.”

The Ford government looks set to pass the legislation sometime in December, and some of it would go into effect immediately. Ontario’s ministries of natural resources and municipal affairs did not respond to questions from The Narwhal about the document or the pending legislation.

Here are the environmental implications in the bill and the warnings brought to the Ford government’s attention in the leaked document. 

An aerial view of a road dividing a suburb from a forest and fields
Housing development in Waterdown, Ont. The Ford government is trying to dramatically boost supply of homes to tackle Ontario’s housing crisis, but its proposals include several rewrites of environmental protections. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

1. Doug Ford wants to limit Ontarians’ ability to appeal planning and development decisions

The new legislation proposes that only “key participants” be allowed to appeal development or planning projects. This would include Indigenous communities and utility providers, but exclude environmental groups; it’s unclear how neighbourhood groups fit in. The leaked document shows the Ford government was warned of pushback from environmental organizations worried about “their ability to help protect the Greenbelt.” 

This change would reduce the number of people that can participate in Ontario’s planning process — cutting off everyone from staunchly anti-development NIMBYs to many with legitimate social and environmental concerns. 

2. The Ford government wants to remove cities’ green building standards

Mandating green, sustainable development is a key to many Ontario cities’ long-term climate change strategies, as they aim to lower carbon emissions. Now, the Ford government wants to eliminate municipalities’ ability to regulate the architecture or aesthetics of new development, including “sustainable design initiatives (e.g., energy performance),” according to the leaked internal document reviewed by The Narwhal.

This would spell the end of Toronto’s Green Standards, for example, which Ford voted in favour of when he was a city councillor. These energy efficiency requirements were introduced 12 years ago and versions of Toronto’s standards have been adopted by a dozen other Ontario cities. 

“This is real low-hanging fruit on the climate action spectrum,” said Sarah Buchanan, campaigns director at Toronto Environmental Alliance.

Steve Clark, wearing a suit and tie, speaks at a podium with a building in the background.
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark is spearheading the Ford government’s massive rewrite of housing policy. Photo: Government of Ontario / Flickr

Buchanan said this proposal will hurt municipalities’ ability to mandate other climate-friendly elements for new buildings, such as shade and trees, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and water quality monitoring. “If removed, it will put Ontario cities far, far behind.”

3. Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives want to revoke the Central Pickering Development Plan

The legislation eliminates the Central Pickering Development Plan, some of which concerns land in the Greenbelt. The leaked document advises Ford’s cabinet that this could be perceived “as reducing protections and greenspace, particularly if … Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve becomes vulnerable to development.” 

Ford could also be seen as “lowering protections in the Greenbelt,” which could be a weak point for him. During his 2018 election campaign, he was forced to walk back a pledge to develop the Greenbelt when it provoked public backlash. 

The document also notes Indigenous communities “may be concerned with the removal of the protections offered in this plan.”

A sign describing passage into the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, in the Greenbelt
Entering the Duffins Rouge Agricultural Preserve, in the Greenbelt east of Toronto. The preserve, part of Ontario’s Greenbelt, is on land covered by a provincial plan that the government is now seeking to eliminate. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

4. The Progressive Conservatives want to give developers more control over Ontario’s park planning

Currently, Ontario developers must provide a certain amount of greenspace for every new development, or pay cost in lieu. This process is largely overseen by city councils, but this legislation would limit their power.

Each Ontario municipality currently sets its own requirements for land to be set aside as public greenspace on new development sites, usually between 10 and 25 per cent. The Ford government wants lower caps: 10 per cent for sites less than 5 hectares and 15 per cent for bigger sites. 

Density wouldn’t matter — a five-storey and 50-storey building on the same size plot would have the same parkland requirement. Municipalities would also lose the chance for input on park locations, leaving landowners to decide. 

Ford also wants to broaden the criteria for what counts as “parkland.” It now includes “encumbered” parkland, or parks built on top of infrastructure like underground parking garages or utility lines. It would also include shared outdoor private spaces, such as condo courtyards or the laneways in a housing complex. 

A section of decommissioned railway in downtown Brampton, Ont., that might become a park. The Ford government’s proposed changes to park planning for new developments could result in fewer and lower-quality parks, municipal experts told The Narwhal. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

This runs counter to a common city goal of increasing density while providing equitable access to greenspace. The Narwhal spoke to a number of municipal experts who were not authorized to comment  publicly and many felt these changes will leave Ontarians with fewer, lower-quality new parks. In the leaked document, the government is advised that giving developers more control could “impact the quality and use of parks.” 

The document states “parks are viewed as a public good contributing to a high quality of life in Ontario,” but concludes that “developers would support greater cost certainty as well as reduction in parkland costs.” Multiple times, the document predicts deep public concern about “the quality, safety and accessibility of parkland.” 

5. Ontario is making ‘transformational change’ to wetland and natural heritage regulations

The new legislation makes significant changes to the regulation of Ontario’s wetlands, which naturally prevent floods by acting like sponges for rain, runoff and melting snow. 

Most significant is probably that species-at-risk habitat will no longer factor into decisions about which wetlands should be protected. Protection of endangered species has stalled or stopped development in the province in the past, and the leaked document notes the likelihood of strong developer support for removing this condition.  

The leaked document is quick to note there would be “no net negative impact on the Greenbelt/Oak Ridge Moraine Conservation Plan.” Yet it also notes that the new wetland classification system may result in “no provincial oversight over the protection of wetlands.”

Ontario Greenbelt map
The Ontario Greenbelt rings around the Greater Toronto Area, stretching from northeast of Cobourg to Niagara with one branch north to the Bruce Peninsula. Map: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal

The government also wants to create “an ecological offsetting regime” for developers who want to build near natural heritage sites. The idea is to “allow developers the flexibility” to offset negative impacts of construction near small woodlands, wetlands and other natural spaces interwoven in urban areas by either replacing them — an often unsuccessful attempt to replicate natural stormwater control — or paying to compensate for their loss. 

On Friday, the Ford government unveiled a plan to remove about 7,400 acres of land from the protected Greenbelt to build at least 50,000 homes. The plan would see 9,400 acres of land added to the Greenbelt in other areas.

The proposed changes break repeated promises by Ford and his government to keep the Greenbelt intact.

“We will not in any way entertain any proposals that will move lands in the Greenbelt, or open the Greenbelt lands to any kind of development,” Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark said last year, The Canadian Press reported.

Ahead of the 2018 provincial election, Ford said: “​​Unequivocally, we won’t touch the Greenbelt. … We’ll figure out how to clean up this housing mess, this housing crisis that we’re facing, in a different fashion.”

The leaked cabinet document notes that both the broader public and Indigenous communities will be “critical of reduced protections and provincial oversight.” Indigenous communities in particular “have not been supportive of the concept of offsetting important features, especially as it relates to wetlands to date.” 

One of those communities is Chief LaRocca’s nation, which opposed offsetting when a now-cancelled development was slated to impact the Lower Duffins Creek wetland complex in Pickering, Ont., on her nation’s territory. She told The Narwhal that offsetting is “highly contextual:” while having a strategy for it can be important, “it’s not adequate to implement … whilst gutting any other protections, such as those delivered through conservation authorities,” LaRocca said.

The main risk to this proposal is listed briefly in the leaked document, which notes it “could result in loss of natural heritage features on the landscape.”

On Friday, The Narwhal learned that the Duffins Creek wetland has been damaged.

6. The Ford government aims to ‘streamline’ Conservation Authorities 

The overhaul of conservation authorities is one of the largest sections of the new legislation. It includes dozens of changes to at least 11 regulations that enable these bodies to prevent flooding and other natural hazards by protecting wetlands and other ecosystems.

“As someone who supports the government’s all-hands-on-deck approach to the housing crisis, it’s frustrating,” said Hasaan Basit, CEO of Halton Region Conservation Authority. “They have told us they value the important work [conservation authorities] do to protect people and property from natural hazards and flooding, but then they introduce sweeping changes that will keep us from doing the work needed at the watershed level.”

Two girls watch the sunset with the Niagara Escarpment visible in the distance
People watch the sunset from the top of the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton, Ont. Currently, municipalities are in charge of making sure new parks come along with new housing, but the Ford government wants to give developers more control. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

As The Narwhal first reported, amendments to conservation authority oversight include permitting development in natural areas that were previously prohibited. The new legislation instructs conservation authorities to sell, lease or dispose of land. It removes their power to deny development permissions if the government uses a Minister’s Zoning Order to override municipal decisions — a controversial tool the Ford government has already used more often than any previous Ontario government. 

The government goes into minute detail in its proposals. Conservation authorities will only be able to focus on natural hazard concerns and not broader environmental considerations like “pollution” or “conservation of land.” Their authority is also being reduced to “areas that are most at risk of flooding,” which can be hard to identify because of limited flood mapping data. 

The government also wants municipalities to issue the development permits conservation authorities handle now. But Ontario’s cities, regions and towns have “neither capacity nor expertise” in the relevant water protection, engineering and oversight roles needed, according to a letter to the government last week from the board of Conservation Halton, which includes the mayors of Burlington, Oakville and Milton. It’s a risk the leaked document shows Ford already knew about: shifting this “responsibility/risk,” it states, “may create a low risk of broader environmental impacts” if “a municipality doesn’t have the expertise.”  

The leaked document says these proposals will “reduce regulatory burdens and make approvals more efficient, predictable and affordable.” It notes multiple times that these changes “should not impact the protection of people and property from flooding” but also says that regulations will need to be further updated to make sure.  

Garner marsh in, Hamilton, Ont., on Sunday, June 19, 2022.(Christopher Katsarov Luna/The Narwhal)
The Garner Marsh in Hamilton, Ont. Wetlands mitigate floods, sequester carbon and provide habitat for species-at-risk. The Ontario government’s changes to how it evaluates swamps, bogs and marshes could leave many that are currently protected open for development, experts told The Narwhal. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

7. New housing legislation aims to speed up aggregate development in Ontario

Aggregate is sand, gravel and crushed stone used to make concrete and other materials for construction of buildings and highways. Extraction created quarries and pits that can disrupt the landscape, eliminating vital habitat — one species-at-risk, the Jefferson salamander, tends to live in places with aggregate deposits. It can also interrupt waterways and aquifers, which can harm the quality and amount of water flowing downstream.  

The Ontario government is proposing multiple changes to aggregate rules. One change, detailed in the leaked document, would punt some decisions from the minister of natural resources and forestry, currently Graydon Smith, to lower-level staff at the ministry. That would speed up the approval process, responding to “industry concerns,” the leaked document reads, also noting that environmental groups and Indigenous communities might see it as “reducing industry oversight.”

As an internal process change, rather than a revision to legislation, this move requires no public consultation, the document notes.

The government is also reconsidering some rules around aggregate contained in the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which outlines how areas of southern Ontario can and can’t be developed. The province is mulling whether it wants to merge and edit the Growth Plan with another provincial policy document, but has only outlined the broad strokes: it wants to ensure “access to aggregate resources close to where they are needed.” 

Mike Balkwill is campaign manager for the Reform Gravel Mining Coalition, which represents communities opposing aggregate projects. He told The Narwhal Ontario has licenced more than enough extraction already. He also said his group is concerned about moves to limit public input.

“There’s no need to accelerate approvals and remove residents’ right to appeal,” Balkwill said. “This is a dangerous direction for our society.”

Since the Growth Plan has major impacts on other aspects of the environment — like farmland and  fragmentation of habitat — any rewrite could be very consequential in other ways, too. The leaked document notes that any changes would maintain protection for the Greenbelt. It notes that while developers would likely be happy with the changes the Ford government has in mind, there will likely be backlash from municipalities, which would have to revamp land planning policy, and Indigenous communities, which might be concerned about Treaty Rights and natural features. 

An aerial view of fields
Fields and the Niagara Escarpment in Milton, Ont. Ontario’s Growth Plan impacts how huge sections of land in the Greater Toronto Area can be used, and the Ford government’s planned tweaks to it could have big consequences. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

The reaction from farmers and environmentalists is also “likely to be strongly negative due to potential impacts on environmental protection, increased loss and fragmentation of prime agricultural lands, subsequent negative impacts to the agri-food sector, and increased allocations of land for housing and other urban uses,” the document notes.

Updated on Nov. 4, 2022, at 8 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to note the Ontario government’s announcement of proposed changes to the Greenbelt protected area.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.
We’re breaking news in Ontario
The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism.