Troubled waters: Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority wetland permitting process is questioned

January 22nd, 2014 by Laura Bowman

Could you imagine a process where a developer can get an approval to destroy a provincially significant wetland in the Lake Simcoe Watershed without anyone even knowing about it, and where the approval is virtually guaranteed?

In September 2013, the North Gwillimbury Forest Alliance (NGFA), a pressure-group of residents in Georgina, released a report by planning consultant Anthony Usher on the way the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) approves developments in wetlands. The report criticizes the process and the policies the LSRCA uses in granting development approvals in and around waterways.

The Conservation Authorities Act gives the LSRCA authority to create development regulation for the Watershed. The LSRCA did create a development regulation that regulates development in or near wetlands, shorelines and watercourses. The LSRCA regulation allows it to authorize these developments where it is of the opinion that flood control and related issues will not be affected.

LSRCA policies prohibit all development and interference within provincially significant wetlands. However, another LSRCA policy that is more specific says that the LSRCA “will” grant approval for lots within registered plans of subdivision, even if they are provincially significant wetlands.

The NGFA’s planner, Anthony Usher, argues in his report that the LSRCA policy requiring what amounts to automatic approvals for all registered plans of subdivision is inappropriate. Instead he argues that the LSRCA should review each application to destroy a wetland on its merits.

On May 13, 2013, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature, Environmental Defence, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, AWARE Simcoe and the NGFA wrote to LSRCA and asked them to repeal the “loophole”.

A staff report on the issue was released recommending only that the mandatory “will” be changed to a permissive “may.”

Jack Gibbons of the NGFA says that the loophole “is contrary to the law and sound environmental practices since it permits development on provincially significant wetlands without conclusive evidence to demonstrate that there will be no adverse ecological impacts.” He remains concerned that the policy, (even if amended according to staff’s recommendation) would continue to promote development in provincially significant wetlands in the watershed.

Another concern is that the process for issuing the wetland destruction permits under the regulation and policies is not transparent. Even if the application to interfere with a wetland is not in a registered plan of subdivision, there is no public notice or comment period. Most other environmental approvals require notice, comment and have an appeal process for citizens, making LSRCA permitting seem secretive.

“Further delay is not acceptable. We cannot afford to risk further loss of our provincially significant wetlands by allowing this ill-conceived and inappropriate loophole to persist,” Gibbons said.

However, at two board meetings, in October and November of 2013, board members at the LSRCA speculated about unspecified “legal” issues and refused to make a decision about whether to amend the loophole. One board member, King Councillor Avia Eek, suggested that changing the policy to allow automatic approvals in wetlands would prevent retirement homes from being built in the Watershed and would hurt farmers in the marsh. Other councillors on the board suggested that developers would “sue” the conservation authority if they did not continue to automatically approve wetland destruction.

Of the board members in attendance, only Georgina Councillor Phil Craig pushed for a more urgent decision-making to protect wetlands at the October board meeting. On January 17, 2014 the LSRCA voted to defer making a decision on this issue to December, 2014.

In the meantime, according to Usher’s report no other conservation authority in Ontario has a comparable automatic approval policy for wetland destruction. Only seven percent of the Watershed is covered in wetlands at present. A 2011 report by Ducks Unlimited concluded that the value of wetlands in the Watershed was in the range of $435-million and that if the remaining wetlands were destroyed there would be substantial increases in nitrogen and phosphorous loading into the lake.

Wetlands are in theory protected under the 2005 Provincial Policy Statement, which applies to recent planning applications and is set to be amended soon. York Region’s Official Plan also prohibits development in some wetlands.  Generally, the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan (LSPP) states that no development or site alteration is permitted within a wetland or within the vegetation protection zone (30m – 120m) around a wetland, with exceptions.

Nevertheless the Watershed contains a number of grandfathered development approvals, and the protections in the plans and policies for the Watershed do not always apply.

The intent when the LSPP was put in place was to enact more detailed shoreline and wetland regulations within a year. In 2010, the province sought comments from stakeholders on wetland destruction regulations. The proposal was to allow additional powers for conservation authorities to prohibit interference with wetland vegetation. At that time, conservation authorities, including LSRCA, complained that wetland alteration policies would cause “duplication” with their permitting roles under conservation authority regulations. There are still no shoreline and wetland protection regulations under the LSPP.

A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Lake Simcoe Living

Filed in: Environment

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