A Ford government order that conservation authorities halt non-essential activities could trigger the closure of Black Creek Pioneer Village, conservation areas and nature trails, the chair of the agency protecting GTA watersheds is warning fellow board members and the government.
In an email to the board Thursday, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority chair Jennifer Innis said she had “in-depth conversation” with representatives of Environment Minister Jeff Yurek about TRCA concerns with the controversial directive sent last Friday to Ontario’s 36 authorities.
Yurek’s letter “indicated that CAs must begin to ‘wind down’ non-core programs and services,” Innis, a Caledon regional councillor, told board members in the correspondence obtained by the Star.
“The wording would suggest that we must end programs and services such as our conservation areas, education centres like Black Creek Pioneer Village, trails, SNAPs (sustainable neighbourhood action programs) and PPG (Partners in Project Green), as examples.
“Obviously, that would cause great concerns to our organization and our member municipalities. It was imperative that the Minister be made aware of our concerns.”
Innis wrote that she told Yurek’s officials that TRCA needs to clarify the intent of the Premier Doug Ford government, and to ensure non-essential programs can continue if they are based on “cost recovery, profitable or there is a service level agreement with our partner municipalities.”
“I have requested that the Minister’s Office provide (conservation authorities) with confirmation that these programs and services will be permitted to continue, and, further, that we will continue to discuss the definitions of ‘core mandate’ and the regulations in the new CA Act,” she concluded.
Innis could not be reached for comment for this story.
The TRCA, which has a mandate to “protect, conserve and restore natural resources and develop resilient communities through education, the application of science, community engagement, service excellence and collaboration with our partners”, declined to provide a spokesperson on the issue.
Black Creek Pioneer Village is a recreation of an 1860s community near Jane St. and Steeles Ave. W. with more than 40 buildings, costumed staff and volunteers, and artifacts. Visitors and school groups have enjoyed candle-making demonstrations, holiday celebrations and more since 1960.
Pioneer Village attendance grew to about 165,000 people last year and, city documents say, is expected to grow again this year, thanks to a new Pioneer Village subway stop.
Vaughan-based TRCA is funded primarily by municipalities, including Toronto, the regions of York, Peel and Durham, the town of Mono and the township of Adjala-Tosorontio. Operating under provincial legislation, it safeguards nine watersheds and Lake Ontario shoreline, including flood protection, in partnership with the province.
TRCA conservation areas include Claireville and Heart Lake in Brampton, Glen Haffy in Caledon, Boyd Conservation Park in Vaughan, and the Kortright Centre for Conservation in Woodbridge.
The TRCA also operates Bathurst Glen Golf Course in Richmond Hill and Albion Hills campground, and maintains more than 500 kilometres of regional trails.
Yurek told the Star earlier this week that conservation authorities have “expanded past their core mandate into activities such as zip-lining, maple syrup festivals and photography and wedding permits.
He noted the Progressive Conservatives had signalled change earlier this year in the “More Homes, More Choice Act,” which is designed to make it easier for developers to build new homes: “Bringing conservation authorities back to their core mandate will allow municipalities to better manage conservation authority budgets and programs.”
Changing legislation guiding conservation authorities will ensure they focus on “delivering core services and programs that protect communities from natural hazards and flooding, while using taxpayer dollars efficiently and effectively,” Yurek said.
His letter identifies core activities as those addressing: risk of natural hazards; conservation and management of authority-owned lands; drinking water source protection; protection of the Lake Simcoe watershed, and other programs or services prescribed by regulation.
Get more City Hall in your inbox
Get an inside look at what’s really going on at City Hall in our Hall Monitor newsletter.
Yurek’s order has triggered alarm among conservation authorities, which operate some facilities and festivals as money-makers to help fund core programs.
As the province doesn’t fund those activities, winding them down won’t save taxpayers any money, they say.
Cynthia Lai, the Ward 23 Scarborough North city councillor who sits on the TRCA board, told the Star said she doesn’t think Yurek had the TRCA in his sights when he drafted the letter, and she doesn’t think Black Creek Pioneer Village is a target.
“I don’t think that is their intent. I think they are looking at the bigger picture; they want the province open for business, to prosper,” said Lai, who added that, while it’s necessary to preserve and protect the environment, it’s important to have balance in the system.
The TRCA owns almost 18,000 hectares of GTA green space. In addition to erosion control, river water testing and other direct actions, TRCA staff review applications for building permits, environmental assessments and other developments that could affect watersheds and sensitive areas including the Green Belt and Oak Ridges Moraine.
In February, David Wilkes, president of the Building Industry and Land Development Association, told the Star he had warned Ford government officials that conservation authorities exceed their legislated powers and that is worsening the region’s housing crisis.
On Thursday, Wilkes, whose association represents 1,500 GTA companies in the development and renovation industries, welcomed Yurek’s effort to rein in conservation authorities, saying they have been requesting information and studies developers did in original applications to municipalities.
“We certainly recognize and support the role that conservation authorities have in protecting watersheds and mitigating against natural hazards such as flooding and erosion and the vital work that they undertake,” Wilkes told the Star.
“We don’t have a challenge with the work they’re doing; we do have a challenge with the mandate creep that we’ve been seeing.
“We have a challenge with the duplicate work that is being requested, because it slows down the process, and, ultimately, we’re seeing conservation authorities acting like planning authorities as opposed to the traditional role that the (law) had mandated them to undertake, and that is a concern.”
In February, for a Star story about unusual lobbying before the TRCA board chair election, vice-chair Jack Heath, a regional councillor for the City of Markham, defended the authority’s development reviews, saying it works well with developers and has taken steps to streamline processes, but must keep rules in place to “ensure the standards are kept high.”