Intervenor: Vol 23. No 4 October - December 1998

Ten Recent Trends In Land Use Planning & Their Impacts

I recently had occasion to speak about the trends in the land use planning regime of Ontario and the environmental impacts of those changes, (1). I rather arbitrarily decided that there were ten important points to make on this question,(2). I repeat these ten points here, along with a brief discussion about the implications of these observations and trends.

1. More decisions than ever are being moved to municipalities from the provincial level of government.

Examples include official plan approvals, subdivision approvals, septic system approvals, and contaminated lands redevelopment. On the "pro" side of this trend is more local decision making and more reflection of local concerns. In theory, the local decision makers have a better understanding of the context in which decisions are being made. On the "con" side, is a concern that with so many decisions being made only at the local level, no one is looking out for the "big picture". We are concerned that many local decision makers are not prepared for their new responsibilities. There is an immediate need for more resources and training at the local level right at the same time that municipalities are trying to grapple with many other new and increased responsibilities.

2. Almost all land use laws and regulations have undergone significant changes in the last two to four years.

Examples include the Planning Act, the Aggregates Act, the Provincial Policy Statement, all of the legislation relating to water and sewers, the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Municipal Act, and at least twenty to thirty other pieces of legislation and regulation. The implication of this trend is that the ground rules have all shifted significantly and very quickly. Many of the rules have become optional instead of mandatory. Accurately predicting outcomes of particular applications and disputes has become very difficult. Even predicting the criteria that will be used in particular decisions is very problematic right now.

3. Local decision making and local participation is more critical than ever to environmental protection.

Examples of how people can participate include the development of terms of reference for assessments under the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act, participation in federal Canadian Environmental Assessment Act screening, and input into municipal decisions. Such participation is often now the only chance for environmental arguments to influence a decision. There is often little provincial oversight now. There is increased industry-based decision making (such as decisions involving contaminated lands or aggregates). The time frames are increasingly short, and there are significant notice issues and procedural uncertainties. Key to an informed public is understanding who is making a particular decision and to find out what he or she understands (or doesn't). Increased public participation and scrutiny in local elections is now a must.

4. Many opportunities for citizen input are being eroded.

Examples of this trend include the fact that there are now very few to no hearings in various contexts (under the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act for instance). Other examples include the proposed Development Permit System under consideration by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, (see CELA Brief #345, May 1998) and the fact that the Environmental Bill of Rights is not applicable to municipalities' decisions. EBR rights and remedies are impotent when decisions are moved to municipalities. This trend demonstrates that "process" matters. "Who" decides something, and "based on what" are critical issues. Environmental considerations must matter to local decisions. Decision makers should be pressed for good process and local residents must take advantage of the available processes.

5. Many decisions that appear simply financial or structural have important environmental impacts.

Examples include recent changes to the Development Charges Act, the Fair Municipal Finance Act, the funding of Conservation Authorities, and many similar changes. The ability of municipalities to accurately and thoroughly assess the costs of growth on new growth has been severely curtailed by the Development Charges Act. The new approach to funding of Conservation Authorities means that pressures are being brought to bear to de-fund Conservation Authorities and these decisions will be made by local politicians. Even the setting of municipal boundaries has important implications for ecosystem planning, when, for example, watersheds or subwatersheds are bisected by the new boundaries. All "financial" and "administrative" decisions must be closely scrutinized as to their environmental implications.

6. The roles of Provincial and Federal agencies involved in environmental protection are being drastically altered.

Examples include dramatic changes to the environmental roles of the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the federal Department of Fisheries, the federal Ministry of the Environment, and the federal Health Protection Branch. As well, the Harmonization Accord on the Environment (and its subagreements) signed in January 1998 alters the traditional role the federal government played in protecting the environment,(3). Governments are often withdrawing from regulatory oversight. The public protection mandate is often no longer paramount in their restructuring decisions. Many roles are being given over to industry or to industry associations. Many public resources are being turned into commodities. Governments are now more often concerned about their liability than about what is the "right" decision from a public protection perspective. Short term thinking is prevalent. None of this will change until governments feel the wrath of voters on environmental issues.

7. There is a very significant link between land use and health that is often over-looked in planning decisions.

Examples of the "health link" include decisions on roads and their impact on air quality; or the impact on water quality as a result of land use decisions. Land use affects the physical health, psychological, social health and cultural health of our communities. Physical health depends on our access to clean air, clean water and healthy food. Our psychological well-being is affected by, for example, getting stuck in traffic, or worrying about adjacent land uses, or looking at ugly, poorly planned developments and devastated landscapes. Our social health depends on a feeling of community which is derived from common activities and from our pride in "our town". Cultural health results from our bond with the land, from a sense of stewardship and from an appreciation for the other lives we share our space with. The impacts of land use planning trends on our well-being must not be underestimated.

8. It is becoming apparent that infrastructure decisions are critical to the future shape of our landscape and to our quality of life.

Examples of such critical decisions include loss of use of groundwater, location of roads, location of sewer easements, and placement of water pipelines. These infrastructure decisions are often completely divorced from the question of the shape of our future communities. They are too often made piecemeal and incrementally. Unconstrained road building and construction of water pipelines removes some of the environmental "constraints" that previously kept development out of important natural heritage function areas. Infrastructure building, if unchecked, is a sure recipe for urban sprawl. Many of these decisions are being made only by engineering departments and developers. As tedious as it may be, pay attention to where your new roads are going!

9. Many agencies and organizations are attempting to move decisions to the "front end" of the planning process.

Examples of this trend include the proposed development permit system, some official plans, some Environmental Assessment Act screening decisions, and public lands transfers. It should be noted that there is such a thing as good front end planning. Good front end planning looks at impacts before making a decision. Good front end planning truly incorporates environmental concerns on an ecosystem basis. Good front end planning plans to a goal or a vision. On the other hand, terrible front end planning is making land use decisions without context. It is the removal of public notice and appeal provisions. It is altering the groundrules without public involvement. It is important always to take advantage of the opportunity to get involved up front. Then use that opportunity to insist on future opportunities for involvement and public input.

10. Planning decisions have a very long life. Communities must think about what they want to look like in twenty or fifty years. The decisions we make today will shape the landscape for our children and grandchildren.

Examples of this include the fact that the water quality of our streams, lakes and rivers is the result of decisions made two, ten and fifty years ago. The forest cover that we have today is the result of decisions made twenty, fifty and one hundred years ago. The species diversity, habitat and population sizes that we have today result from prior decisions. Today's recreational opportunities are derived from what was left yesterday.

The decisions that we have to make now about land use are not only about coping with what we have left, they are also about our vision of the future. But people, and especially decision makers, must understand the connections between land use decisions the the environmental and health problems that can arise. Opportunities must be provided for more public input. What's needed are legislation and policies with the teeth to protect the environment.

Theresa McClenaghan is a lawyer at CELA

End Notes:
1. "Land Use & Development in Essex County", December 3, 1998. Forum organized by Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwest Ontario.
2. With thanks and apologies to the innumerable individuals who have also expressed many of these concerns and ideas.
3. CELA took the federal Minister of the Environment to court for signing the Accord, alleging she exceeded her authority in doing so (see article on the Accord, this Intervenor). At this writing, the court had reserved its judgement.