Conservation Authorities and the Greenbelt – by Don Johnson

The problem with conservation authorities (CA’s) is the amount of overreach they engage in. Their mandate was flood control and water management systems; however, the rising incidents of flooding occurrences indicate they have failed at this as they became focused on other non mandated functions.

One needs to ask what amount of money and ca funding was spent for actual “boots on ground” water flow management versus administration and water management.

In my experience they take the position, anything on or in your property is under their authority. That you need their permission and their permits to do any work on your private property.

Unfortunately for them, their own CA act says they don’t. It does say they have authority on crown lands which includes property owned by the municipality, but respective to private owned property, read section 21(1) of their Conservation Authorities act.

Indeed, even the courts often side with and turn blind eyes to property owner rights. I have personally witnessed CA’s in court using MNR wetland mapping specifically stating right on them that they are not to be used for legal purposes and yet judges ignore this and have deemed property owners guilty of causing damage by doing normal and/or routine property management practices based on these non definitive water/natural heritage maps.

In my capacity as President of the Hamilton Halton Landowners Association, the number one source of property rights complaints we receive from private property owners are related to CA authorities.

The issue is often the perceived lack of CA’s applying common sense to issues and their view property owners have no rights when they oppose positions taken by CA’s.

For example, if your barn or building in what the CA deems is within the hundred-year flood lines, burns down, needs structural repairs or you want to expand it, the CA puts tremendous pressure upon getting their permission to replace or get building permits and without their permit they take you to court. Even though your actions do not cause any real problem and if it did it would not be of any real risk this does not matter, it is the fact you have defied their sense of authority.

One must remember CA’s are very powerful political organizations. They are the second largest landowner in the province, only 2nd to the province itself.

Pulling in their reins and putting limits upon their guidance is good but will be a massive political battle. We need to congratulate and support the governments efforts to make then refocus and to mitigate their religious zeal.

It is about time MNRF removed large areas of supposed wetlands from mapping in which there was no justification based on anything but a broad satellite-based mapping or a preliminary cursory study. It is time we recognize buffer zones are not the actual wetland but are exactly what they claim – that they are normal land bordering but not an actual part of the feature. This sterilization gets even worse when you have municipal planners adding additional buffer lands around what already has a buffer because they have a “green is good” mantra.

If CA’s want to claim “protecting wetlands is their mandate” then make it mandatory. They provide compelling evidence that their mapping is accurate and that an action will cause a quantifiable damage in the future. If they fail in this, then they need to “back off”.

It is my belief and that of many other property owners that CA’s, in their zeal, have destroyed the lives of numerous property owners. They have gone to court and demanded restrictions based largely on “how dare you challenge us ” attitudes, demanding fines, and restoration work totally out of line to any damage that is alleged or actually identified and measured. Indeed, the process is almost always not that you did something that has actually caused a problem, it is that a property owner, in their right of protecting or using their property and in their own common sense did something without their permission, and so, they are deemed guilty of defying them and must be punished and made an example of.

If you remove the authority of CA’s to issue permits and restore them to a support and analysis function one can be assured that there is plenty of legislated laws upon private property owners and indeed foundation of property rights “the common law” is sufficient to protect society. If a property owner causes flooding of a neighbour through the property owners’ actions, then that property owner can still be held accountable.

If one looks at Canada, Ontario is the only Province that has conservation authorities. All the other provinces have protection policies but without the massive cost of a CA organization with a self serving need to protect itself.

Indeed, I believe that CA actions relating to self preservation is more important to them than doing the job it was mandated to do.

Taking these duties and authority back into the function of Government is a good idea and could result in considerable savings which can be redirected to better flood control and significant wetland protections.

In my opinion, the CA’s need a massive shake up. It is also my opinion that if government does not get them into a better balance with property owners, then recent and not so recent Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) rulings concerning private property rights are clear that the SCC does believe property owners have property rights. One need simply look at the SCC rulings concerning private property conflicts with government agencies to realize CA’s , Municipal and even Provincial Government’s can be held accountable for over reach.

Property right laws were among the earliest Supreme Court of Canada’s (SCC) cases and even today the recent cases re private property ownership continue to recognize private property owners have rights.

Despite what is implied or stated by some governmental authorities and even some legal authorities, private property rights in Ontario, for many property owners, are enshrined in the Constitution (read section 109) and in over 800 years of Common Law .

Recent SCC cases eg Lynch, Annapolis, even the recent “Niagara on the Lake” case are clear guidance to the CA’s and Municipalities “that they can be held accountable for their actions when said are in interference with property owners”.

I have read various newspaper article about all the doom and gloom the changes are going to cause. I also note that the CA’s are claiming massive areas of what they define as wetlands will be removed and only the definition of significant wetland will be controlled.

Perhaps the reason that these lands are now being removed is that they do not actually qualify as being wetland or Natural Heritage and the Province is correcting its mapping based on better definitions.

Indeed, I would advance, the sacred trust concept of a sterile “green belt” protecting natural heritage and agricultural lands, is about seizing your property rights and remove your authority of land ownership under the political guise of protecting the environment.

If government wants to build a highway through the greenbelt it is exempt from the policy but the land it expropriates is valued at the green belt affected price which for frozen natural heritage is “almost nil!

I often wonder why citizens are so unconcerned when governments create new taxes, raise fees, increase the complexity of permitting, add new permitting requirements, down zone, and restrict property owner rights of use and support government clamping down on property owners – and that it is such a political vote getter.

One must wonder about what role our education systems have played and “were they used” to indoctrinate our population to be takers, not producers.

It is too bad the press hasn’t provided the other side of the story about why the wetland mapping changes are needed.

It is even more disturbing that the press is not willing to expound any thing that supports private property ownership rights.

From details I have seen, I do not perceive the changes will result in massive development in wetlands nor will it result in destruction of significant natural heritage. Indeed, it may actually help in focussing building on rural marginal value lands and saving valuable high-quality farmland.

So, one must ask where do you allow homes to be built? If not on low value rural lands and not on high value agricultural lands, then what is left??

I and the Hamilton Halton Landowners encourage and will support Governments efforts to restore a balance within the CA system respective to private property ownership rights, which went out of control under the previous government.

I support that CA’s have a role to play in water management and even in some cases protection of natural heritage.  I will however argue that their role should not be as a “permitting” organization nor as an “enforcement” agency.

Indeed, I have no real problem with CA’s having authority for Crown lands and this includes municipal owned lands except that if they effect costly programs that result in my property taxes rising, they need to clearly account for the expenditure with a “results for money spent” accounting.

The role of CA’s should be as a resource provider to all landowners relating to providing engineering, biological, environmental expertise oriented to maximizing land use through creative engineering.

The role of CA’s should not be a denying function. If they oppose a project and a decision needs to be made it should be made by a neutral ministry tribunal that can decide based on evidence presented and the directive that without strong evidence to the contrary, the property owner has the right of decision.

So if you support the provinces efforts to reduce the red tape and its attitude change re removing the word “sacred ” from the political concept of a “sacred greenbelt”… indeed if you believe we as property owners have property ownership rights, then we need to support Minister Clark in his current efforts and convince him to go further in recognizing and making legislation comply with the SCC rulings about affecting property ownership rights and property value impact.