The reactions on both sides of the proposed changes to Ontario’s conservation legislation are loud and impassioned. Environmental groups claim the revisions remove or severely restrict the Conservation Authorities’ role in regulating development, permit and planning application appeal process and appealing municipal planning applications. Some sources equate it to putting developers in control of the planning process. Others see the changes as a welcome attempt to better manage the role of CA’s in the planning process with time limits for decisions. The truth likely lies somewhere in between.
The Conservation Authorities Act was created in 1946 to develop and implement programs and services that further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources in Ontario watersheds through 36 Conservation Authorities governed by municipally appointed representatives. Two of them operate in Cavan Monaghan: Otonabee Regional Conservation Authority and to a lesser extent, the Ganaraska Conservation Authority.
Over time, conservation authority programs and services have been amended to regulate wetlands, shorelines and watercourses and inter-connecting channels. Some CA’s have gone further, expanding their activities into other areas. They also provide comments and approvals for many planning proposals. Roughly half of Conservation Authority budgets are funded by levies on member municipalities, another 40% from service fees generated by the units, with the province contributing the remaining 10%.
In early 2019, the provincial government embarked on a “modernization” program, seeking to address municipal concerns about CA budgets as well as municipal and applicant frustration over delays in CA planning decisions.
After more than a year of consultation with stakeholders including municipalities, farmers, developers, landowners and environmental and conservation organizations, the province has outlined some changes to the role of Conservation Authorities. They include a tighter definition of the core mandate of programs and services, a streamlined permit process with firm decision deadlines, and the establishment of two appeals mechanisms for applicants unhappy with CA decisions, neither of which include direct participation of the CA.
The government argues that these changes will improve the governance, oversight and accountability of conservation authorities and give municipalities more influence over the CA services for which they contribute half of the funding.
Conservation Authorities which continue to offer non-mandatory recreational and education programs such as camping and outdoor education will do so with funding generated by these activities or with explicit funding support from their host municipalities.
Toronto law firm Aird and Berlis published an analysis last week outlining the impact of the proposed changes in the new legislation, focusing on the impact of changes on the CA role in planning decisions. According to this report, the Conservation Authorities’ mandate over watershed management remains intact. The amendments propose to create new appeal rights and increase existing ones regarding Conservation Authority decisions, while limiting their role in the municipal planning process. The proposed elimination of the authority’s participation in appeals under the Planning Act makes it easier to challenge the permitting decisions of a conservation authority.
The direction seems to be towards more discipline with timely decisions and fiscal restraint. With no seat at the appeals tables, there will be increased pressure for Conservation Authorities permit conditions and rejections to be clear, specific and reasonable, as well as timely.
The legislation has received its second reading and is currently under debate. KG