Windsor/Essex – The Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) is adding its voice to the Conservation Authorities across Ontario concerned with the proposed changes to the CA Act included within the Province of Ontario’s Bill 229, Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act (Budget Measures) 2020, an omnibus bill presented on November 5.
“While we wait for the updating of Regulations and policy language supporting implementation of the amended Conservation Authorities Act, we are encouraged that the Act continues to provide for conservation, restoration, source water protection and natural resource management at the watershed level,” says Tim Byrne, ERCA’s Interim General Manager. “We also support enhanced transparency and accountability, which represent the best practices and the high level of service we provide our participating municipalities, stakeholders and watershed residents.”
However, the proposed changes provide challenges to the effectiveness of conservation authorities to protect the natural environment as well as public health and safety, which is particularly concerning in the wake of potential increased flooding resulting from a changing climate.
Proposed changes to the planning and permitting process within the CA Act, without vetted Regulations supporting implementation, have the potential to allow applicants to circumvent checks and balances, which currently exist to manage proposed development within areas containing natural hazards, and additionally, to maintain the integrity of natural hazards when the hazard has an identified function within the watershed.
Of significant concern is a proposed change which would authorize the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry to issue an order to take over and decide a development permit application in place of a conservation authority. Conservation authorities are science-based, non-partisan public sector organizations that review permit applications consistently through the requirements set forth under section 28 of the Conservation Authorities Act. Granting permitting authority to the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry could potentially remove science from equation, possibly allowing for development that may be considered unsafe within the natural hazard or adversely impacting the natural environment. Moreover, the proposed changes include new appeal processes which may significantly slow down the permitting process creating delays and more red tape.
A number of amendments have also been made regarding CA Board appointments, most notably, are new clauses that require municipalities to only appoint Municipal Councillors, and that the Chair/Vice Chair rotate every two years between different municipalities. Additionally, the currently unproclaimed ‘Duty of Members’ to “further the objects of the authority” is replaced with the requirement that members “generally act on behalf of their respective municipalities”.
Additionally, significant concerns relate to the overarching objects of conservation authorities. The proposed changes to the Act serve to narrow the objects of a conservation authority from providing “programs and services designed to further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources other than gas, oil, coal and minerals” to only one of three categories: (i) mandatory programs and services, (ii) municipal programs and services, and (iii) other programs and services.
The proposed changes to the Act include a provision for a transition plan that will require an authority to conduct an inventory all programs and services to determine whether they fall within the identified mandatory or non-mandatory service categories. As well, transition plans must include consultations with participating municipalities and plans for the financing of non-mandatory programs. The proposed changes stipulate that if municipal financing is required for non-mandatory ‘other programs and services’, the authority must enter into agreements regarding apportionment of costs, otherwise the conservation authority will not be able to provide such programs and services. ERCA fully supports transparency in terms of how municipal levies are utilized and financial documents and reports have consistently disclosed how municipal levies support the programs and services of the authority.
“Ontario’s conservation authorities have been critically important to protecting life and property from the dangers of flooding and erosion for more than 50 years, often on behalf of our municipal partners,” adds Byrne. “It’s important that science guides the checks and balances that exist to ensure the safe development of communities and the protection of sensitive environmental features.”
The Essex Region Conservation Authority is a public sector organization established by the Province in 1973, and governed by local municipalities, to provide for the organization and delivery of programs and services that further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources in watersheds in Ontario.