The Government of Ontario is set to amend yet again the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, one of the fastest growing regions in North America and home to more than 55 percent of Ontarians. The government already revised the plan last year. And that was done on the heels of a thorough public review in 2017. But apparently more concessions are needed to sate the appetite of developers and industrialists. Rules that stand in the way of growth are to be relaxed – or dispensed with altogether.
The most glaring example is the government’s proposal to allow aggregate pits and quarries in the habitat of threatened and endangered species throughout the region’s Natural Heritage System. To be clear, aggregates operations can already occur elsewhere in the Natural Heritage System, but not in the habitat of threatened or endangered species. Given that the purpose of the Natural Heritage System is to protect biodiversity, one would think this is the bare minimum that should be required.
But the aggregates industry wants to bring in the bulldozers. Species at risk make way!
Perhaps sensing that this idea might be unpopular with the public, the government avoided owning up to the affront to species at risk in its Environmental Registry notice. There one finds only a vague reference to a proposed change related to mineral aggregate resources. The details are buried in the proposed amendment (sec. 4.2.8). Even then, understanding exactly what’s up requires a comparison between that and the existing Growth Plan. A demanding task even for the most dedicated policy wonks – and a tactic that undercuts public scrutiny.
Other aspects of the proposed Growth Plan amendments are harder to grasp, but potentially more damaging. They involve increasing the amount of land available for development through higher population and employment forecasts. How does it work? Simply put, the greater the predicted number of people, the more land is slated for roads, highways, sewers and sprawling subdivisions.
Striking a blow to coordinated, regional planning, the government is also proposing to allow individual municipalities to exceed the Growth Plan’s increased population forecasts when assessing land needs – again, setting the stage to maximize land development opportunities at the behest of wealthy and influential developers.
Significantly, municipalities can’t go lower than the government’s population forecasts, only higher.
The trajectory is clear and aligns tellingly with the Government of Ontario’s other recent efforts to dismantle environmental policies and regulations and make way for unrestrained growth. A quick and partial recap includes:
Growth Plan 2019 amendments, which reduced density targets and opened the door to more frequently expanding settlement boundaries to accommodate development;
Increased use of Minister’s Zoning orders which fast-track development and eliminate public participation in important land use decisions.
Where will all these changes take us? Likely consequences include loss of natural areas and farmland, reduced air and water quality, additional greenhouse gas emissions, increased gridlock, higher taxes to pay for sprawl infrastructure, increased vulnerability to flooding and other climate change impacts, and loss of democratic control and public input.
Not exactly a recipe for recovering from the social and economic crisis of COVID-19.
It’s time to speak up and let the government know that we Ontarians do not support its agenda for growth at all costs. The role of government is to protect our shared interest in a healthy countryside, not line the pockets of irresponsible developers. As recognized in the Growth Plan, our lands, waters and wildlife are essential to our long-term quality of life, economic prosperity, ecological health and resilience to climate change. We must cherish and protect them for the sake and benefit of all life.
The deadline for comments on the Growth Plan amendments is July 31st.
Anne Bell has been directing Ontario Nature’s conservation and education programs since 2007. She loves to go birding, camping, swimming, and skiing and to play hockey with her husband and two daughters, Kestrel and Castilleja.