Under the guise of a post-COVID economic recovery plan, the Ford government is fast-tracking development approvals by repeatedly invoking a rarely used initiative known as a “minister’s zoning order” (MZO) to prevent local citizens or environmental organizations from stopping the destruction of sensitive wetlands.
At the end of October the government issued a press release stating that it was “helping to promote economic growth and create more than 10,000 jobs by speeding up the development of Durham Live—a major tourist and entertainment destination located in Durham Region.” What the release didn’t mention was that part of this project would require destroying a 57-acre (23 hectares) wetland in Lower Duffins Creek that has been designated “provincially significant.” Another MZO issued in Vaughan will see five wetlands in the East Humber River Wetland Complex plowed under to make way for another warehouse complex.
In all, more than 30 MZOs have been issued in 2020 so far, including October 30, 2020, when five MZOs were issued by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) in one day. According to the Globe and Mail, the previous administration had issued less than 10 MZOs in a decade, usually in emergency situations such as when a mall collapsed in Elliot Lake in 2012 and the government fast-tracked approval to build a replacement grocery store in the community.
Among their many benefits, wetlands act as water filtration systems, provide a buffer against flooding, offer stopover points for migratory birds, and provide year-round habitat for some of the province’s most critically endangered species. A 2009 study conducted for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry calculated the economic value of urban wetlands at $161,420 per hectare annually. As a result, wetlands designated as provincially significant are supposed to be covered by the highest levels of environmental protection.
A spokesperson for the MMAH told the Globe and Mail that “These Minister’s Zoning Orders will help speed up the planning process so that municipalities can be ready, once the COVID-19 emergency declaration ends, to move forward with these projects.”
“It means that protection is no longer the rule and that wetlands are now vulnerable to political decisions,” says Anne Bell the Director of Conservation and Education for Ontario Nature. “Every wetland is important in its own way, and under policy they should not be touched.”
Ontario Nature and Environmental Defence have both set up email campaigns for concerned residents to contact Minister Steve Clark’s office to voice their displeasure. “We’re raising awareness and encouraging people to contact their MPPs,” says Bell.
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