On October 25th, the Government of Ontario tabled Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, 2022, an omnibus bill proposing sweeping changes to the province’s natural heritage and land use planning legislation and policy. Overall, Bill 23 and associated policies remove and weaken environmental protections and diminish the role of Ontarians in land use planning and decision-making.
Below is only a preliminary and partial list of concerns raised by community groups, environmental organizations and many others about Bill 23. Our collective understanding of the bill and its implications is evolving. Please stay tuned for further updates and calls to action.
Bill 23 would remove requirements for public meetings on certain planning matters. It would also remove people’s right to appeal planning decisions (e.g., Official Plans, zoning by-laws, minor variances). Community members and groups would be kept in the dark and no longer be able to participate in or challenge development decisions affecting their neighbourhoods or local farmland and natural areas.
Bill 23 would give the Minister the power to override municipal planning decisions (e.g., amend municipal Official Plans) and impose development.
More Power Stripped from Conservation Authorities
Conservation Authority (CA) permits (e.g., regarding water-taking, interference with rivers, creeks, streams, watercourses, wetlands, flood or erosion control) would no longer be required for development projects approved under the Planning Act. In other words, the power of CAs to regulate or prohibit development that negatively impacts wetlands, rivers or streams would be undermined.
CAs would no longer be able to consider pollution or the conservation of lands when issuing or refusing to issue permits.
CAs would be prevented from entering into agreements with municipalities regarding the review of planning proposals or applications. CAs would in effect be prohibited from providing municipalities with the expert advice and information they need on environmental and natural heritage matters.
CAs would be required to identify conservation authority owned or controlled lands that could support housing development.
Watershed planning, the hallmark of Ontario’s CAs, would be severely diminished, to be replaced with piecemeal planning by over 400 individual municipalities.
Regional Planning Cast Aside
The planning powers of seven regional municipalities – i.e., Simcoe, Durham, Halton, Peel, Niagara, Waterloo and York – would be removed. Coordinated regional planning to protect farmland and natural areas, to determine optimal locations for development and infrastructure, and to efficiently deliver municipal services would be eliminated. These changes, on top of the reduced powers of CAs, would lead to uncoordinated, piecemeal planning across the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
Wetlands and Natural Heritage Under Attack
Accompanying the proposed legislative changes listed above are several proposed policy changes that would have a profound and devastating impact on Ontario’s natural heritage.
The Government of Ontario is proposing to replace the Provincial Policy Statement, which currently requires natural heritage systems planning and provides strong protections for Ontario’s farmland and natural heritage, including Provincially Significant Wetlands, woodlands and wildlife habitat. On the table is a new planning policy instrument that would remove or streamline existing policies to facilitate development.
The government is proposing to completely overhaul the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System for identifying Provincially Significant Wetlands (PSWs), ensuring that very few wetlands would be deemed provincially significant in the future. Further, many if not most existing PSWs could lose that designation because of the changes, and if so, would no longer benefit from the high level of protection that PSW designation currently provides.
The government is proposing to introduce an offsetting policy to guide efforts to compensate for the loss of wetlands, woodlands and other natural areas as a result of development. Offsetting involves extremely risky trade-offs, where existing natural areas are sacrificed on the premise that they can be recreated or restored elsewhere. The loss is certain, while timely compensation is anything but guaranteed. In fact, over 30 years of experience with wetland offsetting in the United States, Canada and elsewhere indicates that offsetting is seldom successful in fully compensating for the loss of wetland area, functions and values. The very possibility of offsetting is likely to push the flood gates of destruction wide open, especially since the proposal includes a “pay to slay” natural heritage compensation fund. Developers would be allowed to destroy wetlands, woodlands and other wildlife habitats as long as they pay into the fund.
All in all, Bill 23 and the accompanying policy changes spell disaster for the farmland and natural areas that sustain us. If passed, these changes will set land use planning back decades and will stymie societal efforts to address the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss through enlightened environmental planning and decision-making.