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Homebuilders urge Ontario government to be ‘cautious’ with conservation authority changes

A letter obtained by The Narwhal shows builders and developers are concerned that Bill 23 will limit access to technical environmental expertise

When the Ontario government announced its most recent housing bill in October, a lobby group for the residential construction industry immediately declared its “support” for the “bold” plan to get More Homes Built Faster. 

Now, that same group — the Building Industry and Land Development Association, or BILD, which represents more than 1,300 companies — is adding a major caveat to its support. 

The housing legislation severely reduces the powers of conservation authorities, Ontario’s unique watershed management agencies that aim to ensure development doesn’t worsen flooding or its impacts. In a letter sent to the province’s environmental registry, the development group urged the government to be more “cautious” before making these changes. 

Warning of “unintended consequences,” the association is asking the province to ensure that any changes in responsibility and oversight in Ontario’s development process are clear and “consistent” — a word that appears in the 10-page letter over a dozen times.

The Narwhal obtained a copy of the letter, which is not yet public but was sent to the government as part of the public consultation it is required to hold for such legislation. The letter was dated Dec. 5, a week after Bill 23, or the More Homes Built Faster Act, became law: Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives put the bill to a vote at Queens Park well before the consultation period, which lasts til Dec. 31, was over. 

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 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.

In the months since Bill 23 was proposed, this is the first time developers have commented about the loss of environment protections. In its letter, the lobby group agrees with the government that “there is a need for systemic reform” to facilitate faster housing construction. But the developer association said it is wary of the move to shift environmental oversight away from conservation authorities to municipalities, noting local governments often lack the resources and technical knowledge needed to ensure sustainable development. 

“Local political considerations could impact technical decision making, and potentially not in a positive manner,” the letter said. 

That’s why the association is asking the government to bring back the Conservation Authorities Working Group, which was made up of conservation authority staff, developers, urban planners, and agricultural representatives, as well as Environment Minister David Piccini. In the Ford government’s first term, the group was already working on streamlining the permit process. 

The government put the group on hiatus before the June 2022 election, saying it would meet again if the Progressive Conservatives were re-elected. But that meeting never happened. Instead, responsibility for conservation authorities was quietly transferred from Ontario’s environment ministry to the natural resources ministry. The group was not consulted before the abrupt introduction of Bill 23, which rendered its work moot. 

Now, the builders association writes, the working group should be reconvened, “with a clear objective to streamline processes while considering roles and responsibilities of ‘who does what’.” 

development in stoney creek, ontario near farmland
With Bill 23 already law, development is expected to increase rapidly. But the Building Industry and Land Development Association, or BILD, has expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of the bill’s changes to the development process. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Reviving the working group is the right idea, Rob Baldwin, chief administrative officer of Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, told The Narwhal. “We work with BILD’s members daily. I know their broader interests are to [the construction industry], but I don’t think even they were anticipating the scale of what was proposed,” Baldwin said. “I think they, as a group, realized and agreed it would create chaos.” 

“Everyone has a role to bring consistency to the table,” Baldwin said. “We want to sit down and work with everyone to figure this out … This letter shows it’s not just conservation authorities with concerns. BILD’s letter creates a dialogue that wasn’t happening in the government.” 

Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark and Natural Resources Minister Graydon Smith did not directly answer questions from The Narwhal about the letter. A natural resources spokesperson said the government “values” conservation authorities and looks forward to working with them to “deliver on our target of 1.5 million homes, along with building safe and complete communities for Ontarians.”

Developers want Ford government to ‘amalgamate’ conservation authorities, sell land at ‘below-market price’

The Building Industry and Land Developers Association’s letter repeatedly says that the industry depends on conservation authority expertise not only to prevent environmental damage, but to protect homes and cities from natural hazards as well.

Notably, the association also offered two big suggestions. 

First, it wants to reduce the number and size of conservation authorities. Right now, Ontario has 36 conservation authorities serving 444 municipalities. To create “substantial efficiencies,” the developer group pitches “right sizing” some of the authorities by “amalgamating” smaller ones.”

This idea has been proposed repeatedly since the 1990s, Baldwin said. Smaller conservation authorities, especially in eastern and southwestern Ontario, are severely short-staffed and under-resourced. But amalgamation is “a bigger challenge,” he said, because each conservation authority oversees a unique watershed with particular issues. 

The association’s second big ask is for the government to proceed cautiously with its plan to assess whether conservation authority land is suitable for development. Conservation authorities are the second-largest landowners in Ontario, after the Crown: for decades, they have managed over 145,000 hectares that were either donated for public recreational use or acquired with provincial funding to protect sources of drinking water, habitat of species at risk or flood mitigation landscapes such as wetlands. 

There are 36 conservation authorities serving all 444 Ontario municipalities. Most are in southern Ontario, with five further north. Each is tasked with managing unique watersheds and ensuring public access to greenspace. Map: Conservation Ontario

The association’s letter casts doubt over whether this inventory will be a constructive exercise. In its letter to the environmental registry, it writes that it “appreciates the sentiment that surplus lands may be appropriate” for development, but stresses that much of this land “is in floodplains, hazard lands or environmentally sensitive lands.” 

The developer group urges the government to conduct this inventory “with a careful lens and criteria” to ensure “only lands which are appropriately suited for residential development are considered for disposition.” The association also proposes that any developable land identified is sold at below-market prices to non-profit developers to facilitate affordable housing. 

Chandra Sharma, chief administrative officer of Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, told The Narwhal that any change to conservation authority lands must consider their full value, beyond potential housing. In Niagara, conservation authority land makes up just 1.2 per cent of the region. 

“We need more greenspace protected in public ownership for future generations and for the health and wellbeing of people that we will accommodate in attainable housing,” she said. 

Three people with their backs turned looking at the sun setting over Hamilton, Ont.
Conservation authority land was either donated for public recreational use or acquired with provincial funding to protect sources of drinking water, species at risk habitat or flood mitigation landscapes such as wetlands. The Ford government wants to review these land holdings to find pockets for construction. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

Housing industry expresses support for conservation authority roles — but agrees fees supporting them should be cut

Along with Bill 23, the Ontario government is changing land use policy in southern Ontario by opening up 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt to development. A recent investigation by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star found that a number of developers are set to profit substantially from this move, some of whom bought protected land only after Ford was elected premier. 

As that story was being reported, the Building Industry and Land Developers Association suggested in a statement that The Narwhal and The Toronto Star were attempting to “sensationalize” Ontario’s housing crisis.

The Narwhal sent several questions to the association for this story, including one asking how it reconciled its earlier statement about the Greenbelt with its current support for environmental oversight. None were answered. 

The Narwhal also sent questions to every member of the association’s board, which includes representatives from multiple development and construction companies, including TACC Developments, one of the companies that stands to gain significantly from the Greenbelt changes. 

The board also includes a lawyer, a representative from Panasonic, and one from BMO Bank of Montreal, which in recent years has provided mortgage deferrals and other financial relief to customers after floods in provinces including Ontario. Questions about whether its experience with the aftermath of flooding informed the association’s letter were not answered by the Bank of Montreal. 

Most board members, including TACC Developments, didn’t answer questions. One member, from a development company, sent an email response blaming the urgency to build housing on the federal government’s immigration targets, writing “we will need to double the number of homes we build every year to be able to provide a home for all these people.” The developer asked that his comments be considered “off the record” but shared them before The Narwhal had a chance to agree. 

The board member didn’t address the environmental concerns in the association’s letter, focusing on the need for housing: “Despite the province’s intentions to speed up development, we will have a massive shortfall of housing units in a few years. The upcoming housing crisis will be of a magnitude we have never seen before.”

Ontario, Doug Ford, conservation authorities
Conservation authorities are tasked with protecting and managing Ontario’s watersheds, like the Glen Major Forest in Durham Region. The Building Industry and Development Association reminded the government these authorities have technical expertise that municipalities rely on. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

While some parts of the letter saw the lobby group emphasizing the importance of conservation authorities, other sections were supportive of how the government is disempowering them.

On one hand, the association pointed to conservation authorities as a way to ensure “a consistent approach and methodology to accommodate for climate change.” It also sounded a cautionary note about the province’s move to shift some permitting responsibilities to municipalities, noting most don’t have the in-house technical expertise to assess the environmental and ecological impacts of development.

With Bill 23, conservation authority approval is no longer mandatory for development, but the developers group says they should be allowed to offer technical expertise to municipalities “in certain limited circumstances.” 

In fact, the association bluntly asked the government to clarify how the development process will work without mandatory conservation authority permits. “Where will this apply and how will it be administered?” the developer group asked in its letter. The letter’s overarching theme of slowing down is seen in a request that municipalities get a year to figure out how to adjust without a “co-dependent relationship with conservation authorities.” 

At the same time, the association approves of the government’s move to freeze the fee developers pay municipalities to have conservation authorities review applications that could impact natural or protected lands, animals and drinking water. “All efforts should be made to reduce the cost of the land development planning review process,” the letter states.

A farm with a sign advertising a subdivision in Stoney Creek, Ont.
The developer industry group BILD supports the Ford government’s housing plan but is asking for clarity to understand how municipalities will build with climate change in mind if they don’t have access to conservation authorities’ expertise. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal

The letter also endorsed narrowing and standardizing the scope of what a conservation authority can consider when it does review applications. And while the developer association agreed with the move in Bill 23 to cut authorities’ ability to consider “conservation of land” and “pollution” in reviews, it asked the government to maintain authorities’ oversight over “flooding,” “erosion” and “dynamic beaches,” as well as the newly added “unstable soil or bedrock.” 

“Proving that an activity is not likely to affect the ‘pollution or the conservation of land’ was too subjective and was often difficult to assess. The test of impact to ‘unstable soil or bedrock’ is much more reasonable,” the association said in its letter, adding that it is “imperative” to allow conservation authorities to oversee protected natural areas.

The Narwhal shared the details of the lobby group’s letter with several conservation authority staff, who said they agreed on the need for consistency and clarity. Many said they welcome the industry’s feedback and have worked with the association over the years to  improve the development process. 

“I think everyone is concerned about the speed of development approval,” Angela Coleman, general manager of Conservation Ontario, told The Narwhal. “If you turn everything upside down, how are you meant to move forward in a consistent and effective way?”

Coleman added she was not surprised by the letter.

“There are many things about conservation authorities and the land we own that are complex. But we play an important role. [The lobby group] understands that any type of restriction or change should be carefully considered.” 

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?
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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