Bill 23: Solving the housing crisis by slicing up the Greenbelt

Collage of Hooded Warbler and the Greenbelt. Photo credit: Madison Duchin

The Greenbelt is two million acres of protected farmland, wetlands and woods. It’s home to Ontario’s crops, at-risk species and acres of beautiful landscapes to hike and explore.

It’s also home to over 300 bird species like the hooded warbler, a small and brightly coloured yellow bird. Its name comes from the dramatic dark hood that frames the male bird’s face.

It’s one of several bird species at risk as they rely on large wooded areas for their nesting, feeding and breeding.

The hooded warbler and 78 other at-risk species make their home in the Greenbelt but Bill 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act, is a threat to those animals and their homes.

Bill 23 focuses on the province’s goal of building 1.5 million homes in the next ten years. The move is part of the Progressive Conservatives’ plan to tackle Ontario’s housing crisis.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford plans to open up Greenbelt land for development and in return add land back in different areas. Many argue the switch won’t make up for the land taken away.

Phil Pothen, an in-house environmental lawyer with Environmental Defence Canada says: “It’s not the case that we can simply carve off a piece of Greenbelt and replace it with other land, because the whole point of the Greenbelt is that’s the land under threat.”

Pothen said Bill 23’s main focus is to push attacks on wetland habitats, woodlands, as well as other conservation lands and encourage urban sprawl development.

“This is legislation that uses vague rhetoric about creating more housing in order to do things that, at best, have nothing to do with increasing housing supply and, at worst, will actually produce fewer homes in more expensive forms,” Pothen said.

Pothen said this plan will produce neighbourhoods characterized by low-density housing, lacking community centres and a reliance on personal vehicles to get around. According to Pothen, this is a much less environmentally and economically favourable way to build housing.

“The bulk of the changes here will be to divert recourses away from those projects in existing neighbourhoods where two-thirds of GTA residents much prefer to live,” said Pothen. “It diverts those resources … into sprawl.”

Bill 23 also attacks the right of conservation authorities to weigh in on these developments.

“The most glaring feature of this bill is an attack on conservation authorities,” Pothen said.

Ford’s government stripped those conservation authorities’ rights to shut down development permits that may cause flooding, natural disasters and other environmental issues in order to expediate the development process.

“What the governments (have) done is they’ve stripped those authorities of the power to say no to development,” Pothen said.

Bill 23 also bans conservation authorities from working with municipalities to provide important information around development on environmentally sensitive areas.

“Municipalities themselves, they’re unable to fill that gap,” he said. “They don’t have that expertise.”

Ontario is the only province in Canada with this type of conservation authority system.

Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA), is a community-based environmental organization, one of 36 conservation authorities in Ontario.

CLOCA provides science-based watershed management programs and services for local governments, landowners and other environmental agencies.

“It’s the main thing that makes Ontario different from other places, like Manitoba and Alberta where you see whole neighbourhoods sometimes just destroyed by flooding or natural disasters,” Pothen said. “It’s not that Ontario is inherently a safer more stable place, it’s that we’ve had this conservation authority system.”

Nathan Fielder, a Pickering resident and avid outdoor explorer, has seen the effects of new housing developments first hand on the Seaton Trail.

“I’ve been biking that trail for over five, six years,” he said.

Seaton Trail runs along West Duffins Creek, within the Duffins Creek watershed, and passes behind his old High School, Pine Ridge Secondary School.

“Some parts of the ridge would actually back onto farmland, now it actually backs onto houses,” he said.

In the past four years, he’s noticed changes on the trail caused by a new housing development.

“Since that subdivision has been put up, the trails have eroded,” he said. “So you feel like you’re in this big ravine in the wilderness, then you look immediately to your right and you’re biking past a whole bunch of subdivisions that got thrown up during the pandemic.”

With the rights of conservation authorities stripped whole communities can be damaged because of poor planning, but communities across Ontario are fighting back.

Architects, landscapers and urban designers from 16 Ontario firms addressed Ford and Steve Clark, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, with an open letter Nov. 28.

They listed multiple concerns in the letter, including the already designated land for development that Ford’s government is skipping over in favour of the Greenbelt.

Other concerns include the removal of conservation authorities’ right to weigh in and shut down permits and the removal of public consultation on projects that affect their communities.

The letter reads:

“We agree that the current system of municipal approvals needs to be streamlined to deliver urgently needed affordable housing. Bill 23 is not the way to do it. It needs to go back to the drawing board. To effectively address our affordable housing crisis, we strongly urge the Government of Ontario to rethink Bill 23 and invite the Government to a robust and immediate consultation with leaders in our industry. In collaboration with municipal and provincial governments, we can produce the best possible outcomes for the people of Ontario.”

Ian Attridge, an Environmental Law guest lecturer at the Trent School of Environment in Peterborough, attended one of the many Bill 23 protests happening across Ontario.

“It was raining, windy, cold last Saturday,” he said. “There was 80, 90 people at the protest and this is after two previous protests, so people are consistent in coming out.”

There have been over 90 protests across Ontario since Nov. 15, Attridge has attended multiple.

“It felt good to be with other people and hear different perspectives,” he said. “And to see this was connecting with other parts of the community.”

Attridge said he was glad to see so many people passionate about affordable housing and protecting the Greenbelt.

Bill 23’s push to develop in protected lands will lead to more ruined trails and habitats, according to many who are opposed.

Not only will the trails frequented by people like Fielder be ruined, the homes built by animals like the Hooded Warbler will be destroyed.

The worst thing is animals like the Hooded Warbler can’t protest like Attridge or advocate like Pothen.

Consider the warbler the canary in the coal mine.

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