Up for Review: Ontario’s Wetland Protection Policy

Up for Review: Ontario’s Wetland Protection Policy

by Linda Pim, Federation of Ontario Naturalists

The Ontario government is in the midst of seeking public input on how well its Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), approved in 1996 under the Planning Act, is working. Because the Act guides land use planning in Ontario, the future of Ontario’s wetlands — as well as other important natural heritage features — is at stake. A review of the PPS is required after five years of operation.

Curiously, although it is called the Provincial Policy Statement, the wetlands the policy aims to protect are found in only a relatively small part of Ontario. The PPS states that no development or site alteration is to take place in significant wetlands south and east of the Canadian Shield. As the accompanying map shows, the area south and east of the granitic Precambrian Shield is not only a small fraction of Ontario’s land mass, but also excludes a sizeable portion of the Ontario side of the Great Lakes Basin.

Because so much of Ontario in NOT covered under the PPS, it’s “open season” on all wetlands in northern Ontario and in the wedge of Shield country that extends south to Lake Ontario near Kingston.

Evidently, the thinking behind affording protection to wetlands south and east of the Shield is that the greatest development pressure is in these areas. While that is undoubtedly true — including, as it does, the Greater Toronto Area and all of southwestern Ontario — it sets up a double standard in which two wetlands with the same ecological value and biodiversity may be treated entirely differently for land use planning purposes in separate parts of Ontario.

Over the past five years, municipalities have used the PPS to help them make their land use planning decisions. The PPS is actually somewhat progressive in that it does say “no development” for wetlands, rather than “no net loss” of wetlands. The downfall is in the loopholes — some big enough to drive a truck through.

First, “development” is defined in the PPS in such a way so that roads, sewer pipes, and water pipes are allowed in the affected wetlands. Second, to be considered for protection, it must be a “significant” wetland. When push comes to shove, it is usually only those wetlands, using a biological scoring system, that gain enough “points” to be called “provincially significant” that are protected from development. Other wetlands ranked as “regionally” or “locally significant” may not win out in a tussle amongst developers, town planners, and/or citizen activists.

The Provincial Policy Statement has been used effectively in some instances to protect wetlands from major development threats. The Victoria Point wetland at the shores of Lake Simcoe (in the Lake Huron Watershed) was saved from a proposed, lagoon-based residential resort a couple of years ago because a hearing officer at the Ontario Municipal Board took its status as a “provincially significant wetland” seriously in writing her decision. One problem is that in making planning decisions, municipalities, and the municipal board that adjudicates disputes, must only “have regard for” the PPS. That ambiguous term can mean anything from basing a decision on the policy statement’s provisions, to simply reading it, taking note that regard was taken, and putting it back on the shelf.

The exclusions and loopholes in the PPS need to be eliminated. The policy statement should apply to all of Ontario and the bar must be set far higher so that roads — perhaps the primary threat — can compromise a wetland only in highly exceptional circumstances and only after a full environmental assessment rules out all possible alternatives.

For further information about the review of the Provincial Policy Statement and how it affects Ontario’s wetlands, please contact Linda Pim at the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, (416) 444-8419 ext. 243, lindap@ontarionature.org.



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