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Environmental Commissioner of Ontario's Annual Report - Chilling Costs of Development Disputes

Tuesday, October 6th 2009 9:24:27am

Chilling Costs of Development Disputes

Queens Park, October 6, 2009 - Citizen groups fighting to protect natural areas need some protection against intimidating legal tactics, warned the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in his new Annual Report, released today at Queen's Park.  As Commissioner Gord Miller noted, "The land use planning system is hugely weighted in favour of the development industry.  Citizen groups wanting to protect natural heritage can face enormous legal costs at hearings; it can be a frightening prospect."

A variety of legal manoeuvres such as SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) can create a chill on public participation.  The Report cites a recent case before the Ontario Municipal Board where citizens faced a claim for costs of $3.2 million - which was fortunately denied by the Board. "There's a clear need for provincial legislation that would put the parties on more equal footing and reduce the threats of SLAPP suits and similar tactics," said Miller (p. 23-24).

Commissioner Miller warns that the ecosystems we rely on may be losing their resilience, and his new Report, Building Resilience, highlights several examples.  Many of our cropland soils, for example, are experiencing considerable erosion, yet the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) deems this loss "tolerable", and allows the loss of real and potential productivity to be masked by increasing dependence on agrochemicals.  

Estimates indicate that over 40 per cent of Ontario croplands have the potential to lose more than six tonnes of soil per hectare, per year.  "Soil formation is an extremely slow process, so for practical purposes, such losses are irreplaceable," noted Miller.  The Commissioner urges OMAFRA to set an aggressive soil conservation agenda (p. 61-67).

The report also draws attention to the vulnerable status of amphibians, which are in decline world wide.  A number of Ontario frog, toad and salamander species are officially at risk, and face an uncertain future due to threats like habitat loss, chemical pollution, invasive species and changing climate. "Even protected places like Point Pelee National Park have lost some amphibian species since the 1970s," Miller commented, "so we need to pay closer attention." (p. 44-50)

Land use planning is another focus of the Report.  In anticipation of a planned review of land use planning policy by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Commissioner urges stronger protection measures for woodlands. "We've lost far too much woodland cover in southern Ontario," Miller noted, "yet woodlands typically receive only scant attention in municipal official plans." (p. 17-23).

Each year the Commissioner's Annual Report highlights environmental concerns raised by members of the public through the Environmental Bill of Rights.  In response to one such application, Commissioner Miller recommends that the Ministry of the Environment  immediately close the Richmond Landfill site near Napanee - a site that has faced years of controversy and public concerns about local groundwater quality (p. 103-106).

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For further information contact:

Hayley Easto, Communications and Outreach Coordinator
Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario
Tel: (416) 325-3371
Toll free inquiry line: 1-800-701-6454

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