Ending the Double Standards for Protecting Ontario Wetlands

Ending the Double Standards for Protecting Ontario Wetlands

A great blue heron or a least bittern loves a wetland and, in Ontario, doesn’t care if it is classed as a Provincially Significant Wetland or not. But the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) under the province’s Planning Act sets up a double set of double standards for wetland protection, which should be removed.

The first double standard in the PPS is one that divides Ontario into the area on the Canadian Shield (the granitic Precambrian Shield) and the area south and east of the Shield. Roughly speaking, the latter area, with its deeper soils, is the part of Ontario that is under the more intense development pressure – it’s entirely in the south. The PPS says that development is not permitted in Provincially SignificantWetlands (PSWs) south and east of the Shield. A wetland is classed as a PSW by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources as a result of a detailed scoring using a point system – a large, biologically diverse wetland gets more points, enough to make it a PSW, than does a small cattail marsh.

The rest of the wetlands south and east of the Shield are the responsibility of the municipality to identify and possibly protect as either regionally or locally significant in their Official Plans (municipal land use plans). But since the PPS protects only the provincially significant ones, developers may challenge municipal protection of “merely” a locally significant wetland as going beyond provincial policy and therefore conflicting with that policy. The position of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON) is that all wetlands are ecologically significant and that no development should be permitted in any of them.

The second double standard is worse – on the Canadian Shield, even Provincially Significant Wetlands are not protected. The PPS states that development may be permitted in PSWs on the Shield “if it has been demonstrated that there will be no negative impacts on the natural features or the ecological functions for which the [wetland] is identified.” In other words, if an environmental impact statement prepared by a developer’s consultant concludes that part of a wetland can be filled in to create a golf course without jeopardizing the wetland’s features and functions – and if the developer can convince a municipality or a hearing officer at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) of the correctness of this position – then the wetland can be developed.

FON’s position is that Ontario wetlands on the Canadian Shield should be treated identically to those south and east of the Shield – no development should be permitted in any of them. A further wrinkle in the Provincial Policy Statement is that in making their land use decisions, municipalities and the OMB need only “have regard for” the PPS – in other words, they could simply read it and put it back on the shelf. FON and many other habitat conservation groups want the Planning Act to state that planning decisions need to “be consistent with” the PPS.

The election of a new Ontario government in October 2003 has provided an excellent opportunity to press for “greening”of land use planning legislation and policy. Ontario wetland activists should urge Minister of Municipal Affairs John Gerretsen (e-mail: mininfo@mah.gov.on.ca) to get the government to amend the Planning Act to the “be consistent with” wording noted above, and to amend the Provincial Policy Statement to treat all wetlands throughout Ontario as significant and therefore deserving protection.

Although Ontario Municipal Board decisions on specific wetlands are not precedent-setting, one OMB decision stands out in its support for protecting all wetlands. In an August 2001 ruling, the OMB refused permission for expansion of a restaurant parking lot in the Town of Newmarket (in the Lake Huron watershed, north of Toronto) into what had been evaluated as “merely” a Locally Significant Wetland. The town’s Official Plan goes beyond provincial policy (that protects only PSWs) in stating that “Development within evaluated wetlands shall be prohibited.” As the OMB hearing officer wrote, “A wetland is a wetland is a wetland.The Board finds that a ‘Locally Significant Wetland’ should wherever possible be preserved, maintained and enhanced in its natural state…The Board finds that it is not in the public interest nor does it represent good planning to destroy this locally significant wetland and seriously and permanently damage the environment.”Since the restaurateur did not seek to appeal the OMB decision in the courts, it stands as an excellent testament to wetland protection.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.