Omnibus bill creates confusion for conservation authorities, OMB

By MPP Toby Barrett

Overdue changes to the Ontario Municipal Board appeal process and Conservation Authorities Act are presently being debated in the Ontario Legislature through an omnibus bill. The bill seems to have good intentions, but like many well-intentioned bills the devil is in the details.

Omnibus bills are characterized by many related but separate initiatives. This one is titled Bill 139, Building Better Communities and Conserving Watersheds Act, 2017. If passed, it will make changes to 21 acts ranging from the more obvious Municipal Act and Conservation Authorities Act, to the less obvious Ontario Heritage Act and Shortline Railways Act. Lumping these changes together means cutting short fulsome debate and public scrutiny.

There is a need to reform the Ontario Municipal Board, established in 1906. For example, Bill 139 will rename the OMB as the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal.

Legislation is needed that respects the authority of municipalities and the input of local community groups, without adding additional delay and red tape for well-planned developments. But, concerns from different stakeholders have already made it clear this bill has missed the mark.

Another concern raised is the proposed legislation limits the ability to have tribunal fees waived for low-income individuals. This also limits the ability to waive fees for community groups that wish to appeal.

Numerous groups have raised concerns that these changes will lead to more cases going to court, making the process more expensive and less accessible to groups and citizens.

Like the changes to the OMB, alterations to the Conservation Authorities Act are also overdue.

Bill 139 adds another purpose to the mandate of conservation authorities, “to provide for the organization and delivery of programs and services that further the conservation, restoration, development and management of natural resources in watersheds in Ontario.”

Our area conservation authorities can deliver these services, but will the government provide more funding for delivery? With the province only providing about 10 per cent of the conservation authorities’ budgets, adding more responsibilities without the money is a concern.

While the jury is still out whether adding to the mandate of conservation authorities will add to budget strains, some upper level meddling could cause problems. One proposal is to change the fee structure, taking away local control and allowing the minister to mandate the fees conservation authorities charge.

The bill gives the minister the ability to make regulations regarding lands owned by the authority and the right to set regulations specifying qualifications for conservation authority board members. Currently, a municipal council which contributes to the conservation authority’s budget has the right to appoint board members.

An ongoing issue for me is the proposed changes allow conservation authority staff to enter a property without a warrant. The existing act required a warrant or consent with the exception of specific circumstances. This is part of an alarming trend to diminish property rights under this government that has seen several pieces of legislation expand warrantless entry.

Although the Ontario government has attempted to paint itself as green, it hasn’t increased the budget of conservation authorities for a number of years. Furthermore, why wait until the end of its mandate and lump conservation authority changes in with an omnibus bill instead of drafting a separate piece of legislation as it deserves?