Reduced environmental protections, lowered revenue coming into the city's coffers, and increased property tax rates are among the numerous impacts that could come to pass should provincial Bill 23 become law, local officials say.
The proposed bill looks to open up sections of Ontario’s Greenbelt to development, change municipalities’ ability to collect development charges to accommodate local growth, and change the way wetlands are evaluated and protected.
The More Homes Built Faster Act, which is part of the provincial government’s controversial plan to increase housing and affordable housing supply, has come under attack across the province from the public, environmental groups, and elected officials.
Orillia naturalist Bob Bowles argues the bill will negatively impact already sensitive ecosystems and threatened species.
If the bill is passed, the province will shift the responsibility of evaluating wetlands into municipalities’ hands. Additionally, it will change the wetland evaluation system for identifying provincially significant wetlands.
Bowles, who used to work evaluating wetlands for the province, said the proposed changes to the scoring system for evaluating wetlands will significantly reduce environmental protections for those ecosystems.
“For the scoring of wetlands, (Premier Doug Ford has) taken all the protection points away from species at risk, endangered species, and a lot of them live in wetlands,” Bowles told OrilliaMatters.
“We're losing homes for those endangered species, things like the Jefferson salamanders or Blanding’s turtles, the wood turtles; all those species are going to lose their home, and we're going to lose biodiversity by not protecting the habitat for those species," Bowles explained.
Bowles noted it can take up to “three seasons” to fully evaluate a wetland, and worries the proposed new scoring system will make it difficult for Ontario’s many unevaluated wetlands to become protected moving forward.
“We have wetlands sitting out there that could be provincially significant wetlands, but they've never been evaluated,” he said.
Beyond environmental damage, Bowles said development on such lands is unsuitable, as they are vulnerable to flooding and other adverse weather effects.
“You can’t build houses on unstable grounds like a wetland, so you have to take remove all that peat, and all that unstable soil and then put gravel in there … in order to make the wetland, which was never meant for building in the first place, suitable to hold houses,” he said. “It's the worst place ever, even forgetting about the ecological damage.”
He recalled Hurricane Hazel of 1954 and the catastrophic effects the storm had on the GTA, which ultimately led to the creation of the current policies and the development of conservation authorities.
“For a nine-year-old kid it made quite an impact,” Bowles recalled of Hurricane Hazel. “I saw houses completely covered with water, built in floodplains, and I even saw houses floating down the river in some cases.
“It devastated Toronto for a number of years,” he said. “They started to build back, and what they said at that time is that we can't let this happen again; we can't build on these natural significant areas, these floodplains and wetlands, because if we get hit with major climate events we're going to be devastated.”
Locally, Bowles is concerned about development taking place on the Orillia Filtration Wetlands, the Inch Farm property, Victoria Point Wetlands, and more.
“They're already being nibbled away with development now; you see places that are sneaking in there that shouldn't be. This (bill) will open up all these wetlands now for development," he warned.
Bowles argues Bill 23 will do little to create affordable housing stock in Ontario.
“(Premier Ford is) all for more houses built at any cost right now, but these aren't low rental housing … these are large, single dwelling units that are going to be built,” he said.
City staff said they are currently reviewing the full potential impact of Bill 23 on affordable housing supply.
Should the responsibility for evaluating wetlands be downloaded onto municipalities, city staff say Orillia currently does not have the required staff to carry out the work.
“The City of Orillia does not have a qualified person on staff to review these requests,” said Ian Sugden, the city's general manager of development services and engineering.
“If this responsibility is downloaded to the municipality, either the city will need to retain the services of a qualified consultant, hire more staff to fulfill the role that the province used to provide, or developers will have to pay the full costs of peer review from the city’s independent, third-party qualified reviewer," he told OrilliaMatters.
Sugden said wetlands within the city are currently protected by the city’s official plan.
“The city boundaries currently include two provincially significant wetlands, and other unevaluated wetlands,” he said. “Based on the city’s existing official plan policies, development in, or adjacent to, those wetlands is currently protected, and thorough evaluation is required.”
However, the bill proposes to remove third-party appeal rights for proposed developments.
“One significant change proposed in Bill 23 is the removal of third-party appeal rights. If a development is proposed, when council makes a decision on the land-use planning application, such as a zoning amendment or official plan amendment, nobody, aside from the applicant, will be able to appeal that decision to the Ontario Land Tribunal,” Sugden said.
The city could also lose millions of dollars in revenue over the next decade with Bill 23’s proposed changes to how development charges (DC) are collected, city staff said, though they are still in the process of estimating the full financial impact.
Development charges are designed to recover the capital costs associated with residential and non-residential (commercial, industrial, institutional) growth within a municipality from developers so that existing residents don’t have to foot the bill.
The bill proposes DC exemptions for various types of developments, as well as the removal of DC-eligible services, such as growth studies, land costs, and social housing.
“Reduced DC revenue will make it more challenging to fund growth-related infrastructure improvements, and that challenge will likely transfer a larger portion of growth-related infrastructure improvements from developers and new buyers to existing taxpayers,” said John Henry, the city's CFO/treasurer, in a statement to OrilliaMatters.
Henry said the changes will result in additional pressure on other funding sources, such as property taxation, and may result in “service level erosion” should funding not be available to “build to the current community standard.”
The city requires $55 million from DC to fund its eligible capital projects over the next decade, Henry explained.
“The taxpayer would shoulder the burden of paying for growth-related studies, as studies would no longer be eligible to be funded from the development charges reserve,” Henry explained.
“This is a significant shift away from ‘growth paying for growth;’ rather the taxpayer will have to shoulder the burden of long-range planning to accommodate future growth, which is not right if the province is requiring that the city grow to accommodate an additional 16,000 people by the year 2051 (at minimum).”
In addition to DC changes, the bill proposes a reduction of cash-in-lieu of parkland dedication payments by 50 per cent, and parkland dedication requirements would be reduced.
By the end of September, the City of Orillia had already collected $37,515 in parkland dedication fees through 2022 for the creation of new dwelling units.
“The proposed limitations on the ability to collect cash-in-lieu for parkland will result in the taxpayers shouldering the burden of funding new parks infrastructure as a result of new growth in the city,” Henry said.
“For example, currently each new dwelling unit created in the city is required to pay a parkland dedication fee (e.g. in 2022 the fee for a non-waterfront lot was $915 per unit).”
The comment period for the legislative changes proposed in Bill 23 closes Nov. 24.
— With files from Bob Bruton