On Monday, the Ontario government passed the controversial Bill 23. The bill is intended to spur development and address the province’s need for affordable housing. But critics are concerned that it will instead raise property taxes and threaten protected conservation areas.
The bill limits input from citizens and conservation authorities in the approval process for new housing and removes certain environmental protections, opening areas such as Ontario’s Greenbelt to development.
Bill 23 is tied to Premier Doug Ford’s commitment to building 1.5 million new homes by 2031. Although, high inflation and interest rates are already curbing that number, with experts predicting that fewer than 80,000 homes a year will be built over the next several years. While the bill is aimed at Ontario’s urban centres, particularly the Golden Horseshoe, many cottage country communities are concerned about its far-reaching effects.
“I think it is short sighted because the philosophy for decades has been that growth should pay for itself,” says John Boyko, a Selwyn Township councillor in Peterborough County.
Previously, when a company was building a development, it would have to pay additional fees to the municipality. Those fees would be used to build infrastructure that supported the new development, such as roads and sewer systems. But under Bill 23, the costs of that infrastructure now fall on the municipality rather than the developer.
The Association of Municipalities Ontario found that by transferring costs from developers to municipalities, the bill would reduce the municipal resources available to service new developments by more than $5.1 billion over the next 9 years.
“Once these areas are developed, there will not be enough money in the municipal coffers to pay for the enhancement and development of those services and the maintenance of the infrastructure,” Boyko says. “Therefore, taxes across the rest of the municipality will have to go up. I don’t know whether premier Ford realizes it or not, but what he’s done with Bill 23 is cause an enormous tax increase on the taxpayers of the province of Ontario. It won’t be immediate, but it is coming.”
Murray Fearrey, the mayor of Dysart et al in Haliburton County, says that this is not the time to dump a property-tax increase on citizens. “We need some stability here.”
Fearrey points out that property taxes have already seen a significant spike over the last several years as municipalities implemented necessary infrastructure and funding to combat COVID.
“It seems to me that the federal government is trying to run the province and the province is trying to run the counties and municipalities,” he says. “Everyone’s stepping down, and we’re at the bottom rung in the ladder.”
While both Fearrey and Boyko agree that further development is necessary, they’re clear that lack of public input, increased taxes, and expansion into environmentally sensitive areas, especially in cottage country where the natural landscape is intrinsically tied to the area’s appeal, is problematic.
“One of the existential questions of our generation is how we are going to deal with the mitigation of climate change,” Boyko says. “What Bill 23 has done is decrease the ability of municipalities and conservation authorities to determine what is safest and best for the environment with respect to development.”
The Municipality of Kawartha Lakes voiced similar environmental concerns in a recent council meeting. The area is home to Oak Ridges Moraine, an environmentally sensitive landform that, as part of Ontario’s Greenbelt, is being opened to development under Bill 23.
“We will not be allowed to reach out to Kawartha Conservation or other conservation authorities to comment on certain policies. We will have to have other reporting agencies do that for us. Bill 23 will be awful for conservation authorities across Ontario as they have power taken away from them for the second time in the last two years,” councillor Pat Warren said during the meeting.
“The bill asks conservation authorities to open up some of their land for development. It will aid the development community and not boost housing for those who really need it,” she continued. The Kawartha Lakes council resolved to oppose Bill 23 and support the Association of Municipalities Ontario in lobbying the government to rethink the bill.
However, Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says its unlikely the bill will be reigned in. “The Ford government feels confident they can forge ahead with the bill. It’s got a solid majority government, it recently won an election, and there isn’t another election on the horizon for years. So, they don’t feel threatened politically.”
Wiseman adds that the bill is partially a deflection. The Ontario government needs to build more houses, but as a conservative government, it doesn’t want to be seen raising taxes, so it downloads that responsibility on municipalities.
“Mike Harris did this one sterling example here in Toronto when all of a sudden, he yanked whatever provincial support there was for the TTC. Meaning that the TTC was the only subway service in North America that didn’t get any support from beyond the municipal level,” Wiseman says, equating it to the way the Ford government is transferring development fees to the municipalities.
Wiseman also points out the contradiction of Bill 23. During Ford’s bid for re-election, he promised not to touch the Greenbelt. “And now, he’s expanding into it. He’s saying, well, we’re just expanding a little and we’re going to add more Greenbelt,” Wiseman says.
“The problem isn’t a shortage of land. From what I can make out, the problem is how you use the land.”
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