Bill 23 rewrites several municipalities’ Official Plans, approving more sprawl and expanding the urban boundary despite a firm ‘no’ from municipalities and communities.
Bill 23 gives developers free range for “unrestricted development” with no meaningful input or control from affected communities, reclassifies wetlands and weakens their protection, and weakens Conservation Authorities’ ability to protect natural infrastructure.
The bill reduces or eliminates development charges, starving municipalities and communities of much-needed revenue.
Ford and Conservative majority and are acting in the best interests of developers and lobbyists, not the people of Ontario.
All is not lost. Municipalities and communities are fighting back and we can join them.
The day after municipalities across Ontario held their elections, Doug Ford and his government tabled Bill 23, part of an all-out attack on environmental protection, climate action, and democracy. The new bill, along with a host of changes to other acts and regulations announced at the same time, will result in an important loss of biodiversity and productive farmland, more urban sprawl, poorly designed and poorly serviced communities, and significant increases to municipal tax and utility rates. Big developers are thrilled with these changes – but they are the only ones.
Ford’s sprawl agenda is an all-out attack on environmental protection
Bill 23 and the Greenbelt attack were put forward under the pretense of building more homes and addressing the housing crisis. In reality, the legislation serves to pave the way for sprawling developments on greenspaces, wetlands, and farmlands. This urban sprawl agenda, motivated by developers’ profit, puts future generations at risk for the short-term gains of a handful of already wealthy people and businesses.
The impacts of Bill 23 on municipalities are wide-reaching and undemocratic. The legislation weakens municipal control over growth and development by rewriting local planning rules. Regulations and laws protecting wetlands, farmland, flood plains, and greenspace have been undermined across the province. Conservation Authorities no longer have a say in development proposals around the protection of wetlands, floodplains, fish habitats, or species at risk. In short, the bill is an all-out attack on environmental protection in Ontario.
Disregarding his promise to protect the Greenbelt – an 8,000 square kilometre expanse of vulnerable green space, farmland, forest, wetland, and flood plain – Ford and his government also put forward a proposal to open up 7400 acres of the region to development. The proposal swaps out huge chunks of the protected Greenbelt for a larger area of land that doesn’t need more protection – namely, the floodplains of the major river valleys in Toronto, which are already protected from development, and one enormous chunk of land north-west of Toronto, which is already fully protected by municipal zoning and development plans.
At a time when communities are realizing the lasting climate impacts of planning decisions made today and envisioning a future where their cities and towns grow within their ecological limits, the province, under the influence of wealthy developers, is pushing ahead an agenda of growth-at-any-cost. This sprawl agenda is a climate crisis triple whammy. It entrenches car dependence, road expansions, and costly new builds far away from essential services, all of which fuel climate chaos. Sprawl also destroys critical carbon sinks like wetlands, green spaces, and farmland, and takes away any built-in resilience these natural infrastructures offer. Without wetlands, Ontarians are now at greater risk of flooding and Conservation Authorities are left with fewer resources to respond to them.
More affordable housing is needed, but that’s not what the bill is providing
Despite the unbearable environmental costs, what is being developed isn’t even what is necessary. The bill limits inclusionary zoning and reduces the affordable unit requirement in new buildings while restricting how long these units remain affordable. It also redefines “affordable housing” as 80 per cent of the average market rent, which is still unaffordable to most people. According to ACORN, “It will make tenants more vulnerable to renovictions/demovictions, increase the homelessness crisis and destroy existing affordable housing by weakening or eliminating rental replacement bylaws across cities.” In other words, Doug Ford and his government gave their developer friends a carte blanche to drain wetlands and cut down greenspaces to build luxury homes while many Ontarians struggle to secure reliable, adequate shelter.
Bill 23 starves municipalities of critical funding
A big element of Bill 23 that causes widespread concern among municipalities is the reduction or elimination of development charges. These are fees developers pay to municipalities to finance the essential municipal infrastructure required to support new housing, including roads, water, sewage, transit, etc. According to the Association of Municipalities in Ontario (AMO), Bill 23 represents an estimated transfer of “up to $1 billion a year in costs from private sector developers to property taxpayers without any likelihood of improved housing affordability.” Indeed, municipalities are uncertain how they will cover this massive loss in municipal revenue, which the Peel region estimates will reach $2 billion in the next ten years.
And there is no evidence that development charges need to be eliminated. A study by Adam Found and the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance found that development charges are not a barrier to housing affordability. In fact, “without development charges, residents would face either inefficiently high property tax rates and user fees or inefficiently low levels of municipal service, or both.” The cuts to development charges, therefore, translate to higher taxes in a period of record inflation and cuts to services that affect more marginalized communities first, all to line the pockets of wealthy developers.
Our municipal governments are already strapped for cash after decades of federal and provincial governments downloading costs to cities. This often leads them to make financial choices that are more expensive in the long run, such as using Public Private Partnerships (P3s) to finance critical infrastructure and services like transit, water, sewage treatment, etc. P3s involve private companies in the design, financing, construction, operation, or maintenance of projects, but records have shown that these projects cost more, deliver less, and lack accountability. As many cities and towns are developing their budgets, we already see proposed cuts to critical services, hurting the most vulnerable residents first. In Ottawa, the Mayor proposed a $43 million cut to transit services and launched an audit into city services to identify options for the privatization of these services.
Developers, on the other hand, come out on top. Bill 23 scraps many of the checks and balances that were put in place to control bad development and sprawl. Developers can now bypass local planning rules, community consultation, wetlands and other protection regulations, before building homes. They also pay less in development charges and parkland fees to municipalities. This carte blanche permission comes with no strings attached, as there is little requirement to build more affordable housing or to avoid more sprawling single-family subdivisions.
When it comes to the Greenbelt land grab, developer influence is even clearer. A joint investigation by the Toronto Star and the Narwhal showed that a prominent developer paid $80 million for a piece of land in the Greenbelt that could not be developed. A few weeks later, the value of the land skyrocketed when Ford announced his plan to open up parts of the Greenbelt for development. Ontario Integrity Commissioner and the Auditor General have launched an investigation into the Greenbelt decision, and the federal government has signalled they might intervene.
Municipalities can fight back
Members of the Northumberland chapter of the Council of Canadians participating in a rally outside MPP and Environment Minister David Piccini to oppose Bill 23
Members of the London chapter of the Council of Canadians tabling about Blue Communities and Bill 23
Hamilton chapter member Christie with her board asking people to share what they would do to improve the community instead of destroying the Greenbelt.
All is not yet lost. Communities understand the threat posed by Bill 23, and opposition has been fierce. Residents across the province hosted countless pop-up rallies outside their Members of Provincial Parliament’s office. Housing advocates, farmers, environmentalists, labour unions, Council of Canadians chapters, and everyday Ontarians came together to oppose the Bill, and opposition is still strong despite the bill’s passage. Efforts across the province are continuing to apply pressure on PC MPPs to remain accountable to their constituents.
Ford’s all-out attack on municipalities has forced many local elected officials to speak up in opposition to Bill 23 and its sprawl agenda. While some are more vocal than others, all municipalities are struggling to confront the consequences of the seismic shift put forward by the province. Given the right support, municipalities can push back.
If the recent strike from the education workers that caused Doug Ford to repeal Bill 28 taught us anything, it’s that when we unite to fight back, we win. We must show Ford and their corporate friends that Ontarians are ready to fight back and stand firmly in solidarity with our allies locally and across the province to continue building a healthy, liveable, and equitable Ontario for all.
Vi Bui is the Ontario, Quebec Nunavut Regional Organizer at the Council of Canadians.
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