Special to The Lake Report
Despite many loud objections, Ontario Premier Doug Ford just drove a few more nails into the Greenbelt’s coffin.
Here’s the problem: Half of Ontario’s Greenbelt Council, including its chair David Crombie, quit to protest Ford’s plan to disembowel conservation protection in the province.
Yet Ford’s principal henchman in this anti-environment scheme, Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark, insisted he was “frustrated” because the people who quit won’t go along with his efforts to “expand the quality and quantity of the Greenbelt.”
Not that Ford or Clark offered details about those so-called efforts. Pay attention to what they did more than what they say.
Here’s what they did: Last week, Clark and Ford plowed ahead to pass an item they slipped into the provincial budget, called Schedule 6, that severely weakens the ability of the province’s 36 conservation authorities to protect watersheds and wild areas.
How does expanding green space square with making it easier to pave and pour cement? If we weigh the evidence, it looks as though Ford and Clark can’t connect these — nor do they intend to do so.
What they do intend, it seems, is to make it much easier to turn Ontario into a wasteland of poorly planned, tacky suburban tracts — not the nice kind — with a few thin strands of trees and green space to break the monotony here and there.
Think this is an exaggeration? We should wish. Look carefully at what the Ford government, including Clark, did by passing this ill-advised legislation. Then look at what Clark has been saying.
Then look at where the Ford government is heading with this legislation and look one more time at the responses Clark gave to Crombie and the other council members’ resignations.
It’s not good.
First, the actions so far. The Ford government has already issued some 35 minister’s zoning orders (MZOs) since coming to power in 2018. MZOs used to be rare, but Ford and Clark are using them to ram developers’ projects onto land over the wishes of elected municipal councils.
“The MZOs we are making on non-provincial lands have been at the request of local municipalities,” Clark says. That’s a surprise to elected officials such as Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas — he told the Toronto Star that the minister’s office called and said they are approving the jamming in of a subdivision with as many as 75 houses on land that Aurora didn’t designate for housing.
“This is not how you grow communities. This is how you ruin them,” the mayor told the Star.
Clark’s defence to this heavy-handed use of MZOs is twofold — he says the province needs wide powers to address COVID-19 and the economic fallout it is causing, and he insists he wants to grow the Greenbelt.
None of this meshes with the Schedule 6 provision that Ford and Clark pushed though in the budget bill.
This schedule guts the power of conservation authorities to do what they are supposed to do — conserve and protect watersheds and sensitive lands from overdevelopment, planning mistakes and the potential for flooding and storm damage, a problem that’s growing with climate change.
Neutering the conservation authorities has nothing and everything to do with the Greenbelt at the same time.
It means nothing because the Greenbelt is separate from what the conservation authorities deal with.
Created by legislation in 2005 by Ontario’s then-Liberal government — and resisted by the Progressive Conservatives — the Greenbelt protects about 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of land over 325 kilometres from Niagara to Rice Lake.
It’s a patchwork, because the Greenbelt is within the most heavily populated area in Canada. Many of the lands and watersheds that aren’t within the Greenbelt are still subject to review by conservation authorities; if you want to build on these non-greenbelt lands it might be OK, but the conservation authorities are supposed to be able to put the brakes on if they think it’s not safe.
Ford and Clark cut those brake cables.
So when Clark says he wants to expand the Greenbelt, he’s talking about something completely different from his plan to allow unbridled construction everywhere else whenever he gives an OK through an MZO.
At the same time, the Greenbelt means everything.
Why? Because as David Crombie said after his principled resignation from the Greenbelt Council, “everything is connected.”
You can’t protect a small patch of river or woodland within the Greenbelt while allowing anything and everything to happen on properties that are right next door. Yet this is precisely what Ford and Clark are proposing — with minimal review, minimal oversight by experts and virtually no opportunity for anyone from the public to object to what developers want.
Ford says his government is “for the people.” If this is so, it’s time to listen to the people.
Stop pretending that listening to developers is the same as listening to Ontario voters.
Stop Clark from saying “I want to expand the Greenbelt” without offering a single idea as to what that means.
Stop pretending that catering to special interests helps us fight COVID.
Stop them from getting away with passing Schedule 6 without an outcry. Tell them it’s time to start caring about the environment.
* David Israelson is a nonpractising lawyer, author, journalist and communications consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @davidiisraelson or on LinkedIn. This article updates a version that appeared in the Lawyer’s Daily on Dec. 11.