Conservation authorities raise concerns about provincial changes

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Local conservation authorities have joined the chorus of calls from others around the province against proposed changes to the Conservation Authorities Act.

The changes, brought forward by Ontario’s Conservative government last month as part of their 2020 budget bill, Bill 229, are being criticized by the province’s 36 conservation authorities, including the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority and the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority, for lacking transparency and for putting communities across the province at risk.

Called the Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act, the omnibus bill contains a number of proposals that the conservation authorities feel could have a lasting impact on public safety, the local environment and resilience to climate change.

Cathy Little, chair of the Grey Sauble Conservation Authority board of directors, said Friday morning that the proposed changes threaten both the environment and the health and safety of residents of the local watershed by removing some of the oversights the conservation authorities have on development.


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“When you are just an individual and something is impacting your property or your situation it is understandable that that would be annoying or frustrating,” Little said. “But in terms of the population as a whole and in our area, the residents of our watershed, it is really important to have the kind of oversight that conservation authorities provide.”

Little said the changes being proposed could have a long-lasting impact by undermining the role of the conservation authority.

“It is hard to reverse and impossible to reverse decisions that are made that affect the environment or affect peoples’ safety,” she said.
The GSCA, which passed a motion earlier in the week asking the province to remove Schedule 6, the section of bill containing the changes, has identified several major issues in the bill that it says the public should be concerned about.

One change is that the bill would allow the province to determine what municipally or self-funded programs conservation authorities can undertake. GSCA officials say that undermines the ability to decide what programs are beneficial to the local watershed communities.

The bill also includes changes to the development permit process to allow permit appeals to be submitted directly to the province’s Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry and gives the power to the minister to issue their own permits. GSCA representatives say the move lacks transparency, can lead to decisions that are politically motivated and removes important scientific and other background work done at the local level. The change, which would allow the hearing process to be bypassed, could result in development in unsafe locations such as flood plains or the destruction of environmental features, they say.


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The legislation also includes new fee appeal methods that may cause administrative burden on staff and hearing boards, which GSCA said would lead to delays in development reviews.

“I just think that the conservation authority has done an excellent job in the last number of decades protecting peoples’ lives and private property,” Little said. “If we start loosening those regulations, the damage could be seen years down the road.”

Little also expressed concerns that the legislation includes changes to the way the conservation authority board of directors is organized, which could lead to a decision being made to the benefit of a local municipality, rather than for the benefit of the watershed and the people within it as a whole.

Little said the change, where directors would be accountable to their own municipality rather than to the entire watershed, could lead to decisions being made that could adversely impact their neighbouring municipalities downstream.

“Even planning decisions can affect your neighbouring municipality,” said Little. “Just the activities you permit someone to take in your own municipal area, those kinds of things don’t respect political boundaries.”

On Friday afternoon, the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority called a special meeting to discuss the changes and many members expressed similar concerns about the bill.

SVCA passed a motion 10-3 in a recorded vote asking the province to repeal Schedule 6 of the budget bill and continue to work with the conservation authorities on any changes. A letter will be sent to member municipalities asking them to endorse the motion, while the conservation authority also plans to take up their concerns with their local MPPs.


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SVCA board chair Dan Gieruszak of the Municipality of Brockton said the changes being proposed have the potential to be the most significant and historic the conservation authorities have seen in 70 years.

He said he is hopeful that any changes made can be done with the province and partner municipalities in a way that benefits the watershed.

“I would hate to see us throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the expression is,” Gieruszak said.

“We would love to see all of the positive economic things continue to happen and we would love to see a reduction in red tape.”

But Gieruszak said the way the province is going about making those changes, without considering the concerns of the conservation authorities, is the wrong approach.

“I would hate to see us back here five years from now talking about the negative things that happened because this legislation perhaps went too far too fast without a well thought out reasoned approach to the changes we all agreed were required,” he said.

Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker said Monday he has received some phone calls and e-mails on the issue and is happy to listen to the concerns being raised.

But Walker said the whole intent of the changes are to bring accountability back into the system by having conservation authorities focus on their core mandates.

At the same time, he said the government is OK with conservation authorities continuing to be involved with other programs and services such as educational programs, campgrounds and events.


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“You can sign a letter of memorandum with the funding sources, the municipalities around the table, and if they want to do that, you are still allowed as long as you can find the funding to run those,” Walker said. “I don’t think anybody is losing out on anything if they have a valid case and a valid business case and they can convince the people around the table who are responsible for spending the money.”

Walker also doesn’t feel any of the changes proposed will have the negative impact to the environment or lead to development in areas where it shouldn’t happen, such as on flood plains or in ecologically sensitive areas. He said the measures being proposed are to ensure timelines are stuck to and approvals aren’t held up unnecessarily.

“I honestly don’t have a concern that this is anything where they get to go willy-nilly and it is acquiescent to the development community,” Walker said. “In fact, I think our record over the last couple of years have shown that.”

Tim Lanthier, chief administrative officer at the GSCA, said the changes in the bill have come about with very little opportunity for input and consultation.

“Based on what we are hearing from our partners and stakeholders throughout the province right now is that a lot of people aren’t happy with these changes that are being proposed right now and we are certainly not happy with the changes that are being proposed right now,” Lanthier said Friday.

GSCA is asking the community for support in advocating against the proposed changes in the bill by asking people to contact their MPP, e-mailing members of their municipal council and going to the GSCA website to advocate for the removal of Schedule 6 of the bill.

“This can receive second reading anytime, then third reading and then be pushed through,” Lanthier said. “I think there is a transparency issue there.

“We want people to know what the issues are and if they see value in the work that is being done by the conservation authorities to keep our communities safe and to keep their environment safe, we want them to reach out to the people who have decision-making power to let them know they care about these changes.”

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