Officials at the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority say they want the province to remove parts of the government’s budget bill because they would bring significant changes without consultation.
Mark Peacock, secretary treasurer and general manager for the authority, said Bill 229 would move some local accountability to provincial ministries, which goes against what the conservation authorities were originally set up to do.
“Other ministries are not set up on the local watershed basis and that is the proper way to do it. It’s the only way that makes sense,” he said.
He said there was already a different piece of legislation working through the provincial legislator that would change the Conservation Authorities Act based on a review, but these new proposals go much further.
Peacock said these changes, which he called “probably the most significant since 1946,” would create more red tape by moving more appeals to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal.
He said right now if someone disagrees with a staff member over a permit, they can go to a tribunal of the executive committee of the board, which is made up of municipally-appointed members.
If the person doesn’t agree with that decision, they can go to the Mining and Lands Appeal Tribunal, which Peacock said “has worked very successfully in the past.”
“One of the problems with LPAT is it’s quite busy,” he said. “It does a lot of different things and the amount of time to get to it and the amount of red tape around it is significant. That is not there with the Mining and Lands (Tribunal).”
Another change in the bill would prevent conservation authorities from appealing municipal decisions to the LPAT.
Peacock said that avenue is needed in case there is a “significant issue” – such as potential flooding – with a decision the LTVCA needs to address. He said there could be cases in which a municipality makes a decision that will have an affect on another community within the watershed.
In some cases the minister of natural resources and forestry could take over the permit application process from local authorities.
MPP Jeff Yurek, provincial environment minister, recently said these changes “would ensure fuller representation of municipalities and enable the perspectives on the agricultural sectors in conservation authority governance and decision making.”
He also said giving the province more control over permits would “provide a new mechanism for the province to become involved … where there are matters of provincial interest” and would ensure a consistent approach for all landowners.
Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff, during a weekly media conference call on Thursday, said the municipality has worked closely with the LTVCA and the St. Clair Region Conservation Authority “with the objective to protect the environment.”
However, the mayor said there is a fine line with development.
“People want to build things, so we need to make sure that we work together to make sure that it’s done safely in the environment,” Canniff said.
Don Shropshire, chief administrative officer for Chatham-Kent, said the Lower Thames’ work on flood relief, flood mitigation and reporting “is almost like an extension of the municipality.”
He said the province can change the powers of conservation authorities, but the municipality will “continue to work very closely with them.”
The bill would also mean all members of a conservation authority would have to be a municipal councillor. In the Lower Thames’ case, all member municipalities except for the City of London are represented by councillors.
As well, the province would appoint one member to represent the agricultural sector.
Peacock said he is not against this, but he doesn’t understand how it will work. He said there are already board members with agricultural backgrounds because the watershed is agricultural.
He also questioned how a provincial appointee would handle financial matters, since the province provides about $85,000 out of a $3.3 million budget. The province used to provide funds to cover about half of the budget, he said.
“It’s the member municipalities that pay for the authority,” Peacock said.
The changes could also mean losing some oversight of development on floodplains, which is currently based on scientific and technical studies of the watershed, he said.
“That science is what should be used in making development decisions,” Peacock said. “There is a potential, if people are stepping in to make decisions outside of that, that those decisions will be wrong and they will put many people at risk.”
– With files from Mark Malone and Max Martin