Citizens battling huge development projects face legal, financial threats, says Ontario's environmental commissioner
By Tany Talaga
Citizen groups who take on big developers need enhanced provincial protection from economic intimidation and legal threats, according to a new report from Ontario's environmental commissioner.
Touching on issues from soil erosion to the disappearance of amphibians in Ontario, commissioner Gord Miller's far-reaching report says the land-use planning system is "hugely weighted" in favour of the development industry.
"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 says in his 180-page report.
There are cases of people not participating in public planning discussions for fear of incurring a personal lawsuit, he said.
"That chilling effect, I am fully confident, is widespread," Miller said.
Miller cited 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 in Innisfil. But citizens faced a claim for costs of $3.2 million – which was denied by the board.
The Big Bay fight led to calls for the Ontario government to develop anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) legislation. Such laws are in force in Quebec and many American states. Miller called for the creation of legislation that would put both sides of development disputes on equal footing and noted it "could serve to halt SLAPP suits in their tracks."
However, when Environment Minister John Gerretsen was asked if he was in favour of enhanced protective legislation for citizens, he deferred the question to Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson, who said there is no need for anti-SLAPP legislation.
The track record of the OMB has been "very positive," he added.
"They won't set up a system that is only for the rich and only for powerful corporations," Watson said. "We have to allow individuals who don't have deep pockets to be able to speak freely about legitimate concerns about a development application. To date, I have seen no evidence where individuals have in fact been threatened by coming before the OMB.
Citizens involved in the environmental movement said the government is out to lunch on this issue.
Premier Dalton McGuinty's government should stop punishing its citizens and start rewarding people for showing up to OMB meetings to defend the environment, said David Donnelly, a lawyer and member of Environmental Defence, a non-profit advocacy group.
"Minister Watson clearly has never been to the OMB and doesn't understand what pressures families face when they are being hit with millions in lawsuits by developers. Shame on Minister Watson. He needs to do his homework," said Donnelly.
"This is a burden in communities and on families. It is not true to say the process works well. They have to get on to the job of fixing it."
The report, entitled Building Resilience, also recommends closing the Richmond landfill site near Kingston.
Richmond, an older landfill site, is "arguably one of the worst sites in Ontario to ever locate landfill" and it contains millions of tonnes of waste, Miller said. There is little soil at the site and the limestone rock below is fractured, he said. Waste can run "like water through a pipe," seeping down large distances without being naturally filtered, he added.
"It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to monitor this site."
Also of concern to the commissioner are the declining amphibian species in Ontario such as the spring peeper, Jefferson salamander, pickerel frog, northern cricket frog, bullfrog and northern leopard frog.
"Here is a group of particularly sensitive animals. They are exposed to water, their skins are sensitive to air pollutants and all sorts of disturbances, and guess what? They are dying off around the world at the highest rates," Miller said.
"There are 27 species in Ontario and we should be keeping an eye on them. Somebody should be involved in monitoring their health and looking for ways to mitigate their disturbances."