By Linda Pim
In Ontario, we have a tendency to boast about our provincial wetlands protection policies compared to those in some other jurisdictions around the Great Lakes. We know the policies are imperfect and not geographically broad enough in their application, but we tend to think they’re pretty good. And the policies got a bit better with the approval by the Ontario government of the new Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) under the Planning Act, effective March 2005.
However, our long-held reservations about Ontario wetlands policies were again brought to the fore with the October 2005 release of the annual report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. The Commissioner, an officer of the Ontario Legislature,is an environmental auditor whose reports are always welcomed by the Ontario environmental community. Commissioner Miller pulls no punches in his reports, uncovering the failings of provincial ministries to protect the environment and making recommendations for action.
In his October report covering the 2004-2005 fiscal year, Miller takes a close look at the new Provincial Policy Statement.The PPS provides guidance to Ontario municipalities, as they draft or review their Official Plans (municipal land use plans), on what the provincial interests are in land use with which municipal documents and decision must be consistent. The new PPS certainly is an improvement over the previous one (in effect 1997-2005) in that its policies are expected to more effectively rein in urban sprawl and protect prime farmlands. You can read the PPS at www.mah.gov.on.ca (click on Land Use Planning). You can read the Environmental Commissioner’s annual report at www.eco.on.ca (see pages 36-47 in particular).
Ontario environmental organizations have long raised concerns about the definition of “development” in the PPS because of its massive loopholes. Yes, there is to be no development in Provincially Significant Wetlands and significant Great Lakes coastal wetlands. But as Miller points out,“project approvals that involve infrastructure, such as sewage systems or transportation corridors, are typically approved under other legislation and are not bound by the PPS. The term ‘development’ specifically excludes activities that create or maintain infrastructure authorized under an environmental assessment process; works subject to the Drainage Act; or the mining of minerals, or advanced exploration on mining lands in some areas. ‘Infrastructure’ also includes water systems, sewage treatment systems, waste management systems, electric power generation and transmission, communications and telecommunications, transit and transportation corridors and facilities, oil and gas pipelines and associated facilities.” One could be forgiven for wondering exactly what development is prohibited in significant wetlands under the PPS; the main prohibition is urban development.
The PPS is about all provincial-level interests in good land use planning, not just the protection of natural heritage. As Miller writes, “The PPS… is the collection of quasi-rules that underpins Ontario’s approach to planning. They guide the practice of planning, literally shaping the landscape of the province… It is evident that some land uses are given clear priority over others… Environmental planning and protection – natural areas, wild species and water quality – are not given the same importance as economic drivers. …Few of the critical elements of the natural environment – significant woodlands, wetlands, valleylands, species, sensitive water features – are adequately protected. In fact, virtually none of them are protected from urbandevelopment activities such as aggregate extraction or highway construction. Natural features are often treated simply as end-stage checks on development. Many natural features do not even have to be identified or comprehensively planned for by municipalities. The approach taken by the PPS often forces the defence of environmental interests on a case-by-case, woodlot-by-woodlot and wetland-by-wetland basis.
“Supporters of natural heritage often bear the burden of proving the ecological significance of such areas… Rather, the onus – starting at the very onset of the planning process – should be placed on the development pressures themselves to justify need. Taking such an ecologically sensible approach might require that individual development activities demonstrate their own ‘significance’ and societal need to merit intrusion on a natural heritage system.”
The PPS, as a set of minimum standards for municipalities to follow, does not prevent municipalities from exceeding its specific requirements unless doing so would result in conflict with other components of the PPS. Brave, environmentally progressive municipal councils in Ontario should be encouraged to challenge the wetlands “protection” provisions of the PPS next time a proposal to destroy a wetland comes knocking.
For more information:
Linda Pim, GLAHNF Lake Advisor
335 Lesmill Rd, Don Mills, ONT M3B 2W8