Groups call on townships to oppose province’s Bill 66

Fearing that sweeping new provincial legislation would undo efforts to frame planning decisions and protect the environment, a variety of community groups and concerned citizens have quickly mobilized to rally local political support for their opposition.

They found a sympathetic ear at Woolwich and Wellesley councils Tuesday night, arguing the Ford government’s Bill 66 – the omnibus Restoring Ontario’s Competitiveness Act – could sweep away regional initiatives such as the countryside line that protects farmland from sprawl.

As they did earlier in the day in winning support from regional council’s planning committee, representatives of various groups called on township councils to oppose parts of Bill 66 and to pledge not to use some of the damaging provisions if the legislation does pass. Specifically, section 10 of the bill would effectively allow individual municipalities to exempt  development projects from the Clean Water Act and the Places to Growth policy, removing the need for public consultation and oversight to boot.

“We believe that this bill is not only bad for the environment and undemocratic because of the lack of an appeal process, but it also puts municipal councils in a very vulnerable position,” Dorothy Wilson of Nith Valley Eco Boosters told Wellesley councillors January 8.

At Woolwich council, Bob Jonkman was joined by a number of environmental and community group representatives in calling for the township to shun the bill’s open-for-business provisions that would override years of efforts to protect citizens.

The bill would allow individual municipalities to give the go-ahead to development that doesn’t follow environmental protections, for instance, “bypassing all of the existing laws that protect the citizens of Ontario.”

While parts of the bill make sense in tackling red tape, said Jonkman, it’s so sweeping in scope and vague in its language as to be dangerous beyond even what’s seen right now.

“An omnibus bill is a tool for scoundrels and scallywags,” he argued.

“It opens up Pandora’s Box,” added Kevin Thomason of Smart Growth Waterloo Region. “It’s a really disturbing and undemocratic bill that no one can get any information on.”

Though it’s provided little in the way of details, the Ford government has argued Bill 66 is needed to make Ontario more competitive by cutting red tape, promoting deregulation and signalling the province is open for business.

Such assertions were challenged by Sam Nabi of Hold the Line, a group that promotes the Region of Waterloo’s countryside line that separates the urban and rural areas in the name of reducing sprawl and protecting farmland. The group holds an annual music festival in support of the cause.

“The problem with Section 10 is that generally we don’t need it. Here in Waterloo Region, unemployment fell since we’ve adopted our growth management strategy in 2003. It is a very well thought out and collaborative document that sets out ‘These are the rural areas that we’re going to protect,’” he told Wellesley council.

“Here in Waterloo Region, we have ample vacant employment land. There is a process already to make sure that we have enough areas for new companies to locate of all different types and sizes. Bill 66 would create a patchwork, not just of local planning regulations but the environmental protections as well.”

Hold the Line, Smart Growth Waterloo Region and the Waterloo Federation of Agriculture quickly banded together last month in opposition to the newly announced legislation. Despite the holidays, community groups mobilized to rally against Bill 66 and solicit feedback prior to the province’s tight deadlines for input.

“All of the local groups are calling on councils not to use the land-use exemptions of Bill 66,” said Nabi in an interview Monday, adding councillors could send a message to the province by opposing the legislation and supporting their own existing planning guidelines. “We want the townships to reaffirm their commitment to the processes they have in place.”

The groups’ stance won unanimous support at the region’s planning committee meeting this week. Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz, who sits on that committee, notes provisions in the bill fail to protect drinking water resources, for instance.

Woolwich Coun. Patrick Merlihan agreed there needs to be a coordinated effort in the region to avoid undermining planning and environmental controls, adding he sees a downside to too much deregulation.

“I have just one word: Walkerton. That should put the fear into every politician and staff.

“Elmira knows only too well the threat to drinking water.”

Woolwich councillors expect to make a decision on feedback to the province when they meet again on January 15.

With files from Veronica Reiner.

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