Years of budget cuts leave agency short of staff
This article was written by Allison Jones and was published in the Toronto Star on December 17, 2022.
Ontario is not providing enough funding to allow proper protection of the Niagara Escarpment, where nearly all development permit applications have been approved in the last five years, the province’s auditor general says.
A recent report by the auditor general said there are significant areas of the Escarpment not covered by the official plan that guides Escarpment land use, and that the plan allows for development that harms endangered species’ habitats.
As well, the Niagara Escarpment Commission, an agency tasked with implementing the plan, doesn’t have enough staff, resources or programs for certain work, the auditor said.
“It is obvious that the commission does not have sufficient resources for environmental monitoring to assess the state of the Escarpment,” auditor general Bonnie Lysyk wrote in her report this month.
“The purpose of the Niagara Escarpment (legislation) is to maintain the Niagara Escarpment and adjacent lands as a continuous natural environment, and to allow only compatible development. Good stewardship requires constant improvements to best address and adapt to rising pressures on the Escarpment, including from the significant population growth in the region.”
The commission had an environmental monitoring specialist on staff until 2015, but did not renew the position, the audit said.
In 1996, the province cut the commission’s funding by about one-third, Lysyk wrote. The commission’s budget saw cuts again in 2010-11, the next two years and then again in 2019-20.
The NDP’s Niagara-area representatives are calling on the government to raise funding so the Escarpment can be better protected, though it’s not the only land they accuse Premier Doug Ford of failing to protect.
“We’ve seen Mr. Ford break his promise and announce his plan to bulldoze the Greenbelt, and we know this means green space across the province is now at risk,” Wayne Gates wrote.
Ford recently announced that he would remove 15 different areas from the protected Greenbelt lands so that 50,000 homes can be built, while adding acres elsewhere. That’s despite previous promises from both Ford and his housing minister that they wouldn’t touch the Greenbelt.
“We are already seeing the consequences of Mr. Ford quietly taking funding away from the Niagara Escarpment,” Gates wrote.
In the past five years, only19 of 1,661 Escarpment development permits were refused, Lysyk’s report said. Some of the approved applications went against the official plan.
For example, in 2019, an application was approved to take 20,000 square metres of earth, sand and gravel to level a field for a vineyard, but under the plan only topsoil can be used for that, the report said.
As well, the commission hasn’t assessed the cumulative effects of the more than 12,000 development permits issued since 1975, the report said.
“The effect of multiple stressors poses a threat to the environment, yet the commission considers development permits in isolation,” Lysyk wrote, noting that the then-Liberal government in 2017 removed a reference to cumulative effects in the escarpment plan, even though the commission recommended strengthening that area.
As part of the 2017 changes, the government also removed protecting an endangered species’ habitat as an explicit ground for refusing a development permit application.
There are 54 aggregate operations on the Escarpment and 17 are licensed for unlimited tonnage, the report said. The commission recommended a prohibition on new aggregate operations in 2017 in the area covered by the Escarpment plan, but the government declined to make that change, Lysyk wrote.
The commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Graydon Smith said in a statement that the commission makes its decisions independently and according to a risk management framework.
“The ministry works collaboratively with the Niagara Escarpment Commission, partner ministries, municipalities, and conservation authorities to maintain the Niagara Escarpment and land in its vicinity as a continuous natural environment and to ensure compatible development,” Smith wrote.
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