Citizen groups who fight big developers to save natural areas need enhanced provincial protection from intimidating tactics and legal threats, according to Ontario’s environmental commissioner.
The land use planning system is hugely weighted in favour of the development industry, environmental commissioner Gord Miller found in his annual report released Tuesday.
“When the stakes are in the many millions — sometimes billions — of dollars, the resources that developers are prepared to invest to overcome residents’ objections far surpass the capacity of most citizens groups (and) environmental organizations,” Miller said in his 180-page report.
Miller took aim at problems surrounding a proposed $1-billion luxury resort project on the shores of Lake Simcoe. Concerned residents participated in an Ontario Municipal Board hearing regarding approvals for the Big Bay Point Resort, the report said.
Citizens faced a claim for costs of $3.2 million — which was denied by the board.
The Big Bay fight has led to calls for the Ontario government to develop anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) legislation.
Miller called for the creation of legislation that would put both sides of development disputes on equal footing and noted “such legislation could serve to halt SLAPP suits in their tracks.”
However, Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson said there is no need for anti-SLAPP legislation.
“No other province has, in fact, anti-SLAPP legislation,” he said. “We feel the OMB looks at each case, on a case-by-case basis. If they see there are legitimate reasons to award costs, they have the authority to do so.”
Miller’s report also took special aim at the need to watch overdevelopment of southern Ontario and for the ministry of municipal affairs and housing to ensure stronger protection measures for woodlands.
“We’ve lost far too much woodland cover in southern Ontario,” Miller said, “yet woodlands typically receive only scant attention in municipal official plans.”
Approximately 80 per cent of southern Ontario’s original woodland cover has been lost, the report notes.
Also of concern to the commissioner are the declining amphibians species in Ontario. Namely the spring peeper, the Jefferson salamander, pickerel frog, northern cricket frog, bullfrog and northern leopard frog.
Better buffer zones are needed to protect amphibians from development and people, the report said.